PAUL T. CORRIGAN: Ravi Shankar’s The Many Uses of Mint (Recent Works Press, 2018) presents a selection of poems from his nine previous volumes published over the past twenty years. In this conversation, Lisa, you and I are reviewing his book in an unusual way, not monologically but dialogically. This is a fitting experiment given that some of Shankar’s poems are written collaboratively. Hopefully, it will not only be more interesting for readers but also lead to a more insightful review than if we had each just written our own separate reviews. You and I had several conversations leading up to this one, talking with each other as well as with Ravi about the book. A couple of times in those conversations you described The Many Uses of Mint as being “all at once.” What do you mean by that?
LISA PEGRAM: “Everything all at once” is how I described my first trip to India. I felt that same kind of wonder when I read The Many Uses of Mint. Of course, India has a strong presence in the book, but the comparison is far less literal than that. Its arc of themes and settings, at once broad and controlled, with vivid imagery that both charms and repels, challenges the reader to confront the world without the crutch of compartmentalization.
For me, India was profound beauty. The row of shoes outside each door that signaled a surrender to one’s destination. The glorious, saturated hues of textiles. The perfect amount of black pepper in a cup of chai, marking each sip like the chime of anklets that marked steps. The scent of mindfulness, like incense in the air. At the same time, that air was heavy with smog, and smelled of burning trash as much as sandalwood. The sari with the flash of emerald across fuchsia might be veiled in dust, worn by a woman breaking rock on the side of the road. There were the homeless children missing limbs, or maybe with no visible disability but with what seemed to be a heartbreaking hunger in their eyes. They called you Aunty in tiny bird voices with tiny hands cupped, making the plea rhetorical to anyone with a heart but there were so many. So many. You could not possibly fill them all. The monster garbage truck, reeking as it muscled its way through an impossible tangle of traffic, only to have a jaunty ditty programmed to play when it shifted into reverse. All of this served, with reverence, on the same plate.
This is how I experienced The Many Uses of Mint. The book asks the reader to hold space for light and dark not as opposites, but symbiotic parts of a whole. More than a “greatest hits” of disparate pieces joined most by the hand that penned them, Shankar’s approach to this collection curates a conversation between these poems that creates a new sum of its parts. It’s a visceral study in juxtaposition. The kind of sweet spot on the cusp of harmony and dissonance achieved by jazz masters in their more transcendent improvisations. Shankar’s selection, and ordering, of these poems makes agile leaps between meditations as micro as intimacy between lovers, and macro as the ravages of colonialism or time. In one moment, we taste the brine of the Mediterranean, in the next, the suburban pine of the American East coast. The Many Uses of Mint asks the reader to bear witness as contrasting themes rub against each other the way they do in real life. Like strangers packed into every crevice of an Indian train. Everything all at once.
This created a spiritual aesthetic to the collection for me, which was anchored by the poems that ventured into that realm. You mentioned being intrigued by the various references to religion in the book, can you talk a bit more about what resonated with you in those pieces or the overall theme?
PAUL: Who was it who said a good response to poetry is more poetry? I feel that about your comments just here, comparing your visit to India with your reading of this book. You’ve written a new poem. Even as I also had my own experience reading the poems, I am moved vicariously through hearing about your reading.
I did pick up on a number of religious references in the book. I always pay attention to religious and spiritual language in poetry, out of both personal and professional interest. Personally, I see art as spiritual. And as a literary scholar, I write about contemporary poetry that engages the religious in nontraditional ways. So my antennas were already up when I came across references to Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity, like in the poem “The Shanty of Subliminal Governance,” where Shankar writes, “the sacrament of mind looking / back at the slack flesh / with a wish to be two / but not two” (pp. 146-48), which seems to echo Biblical language (Genesis 2:24). But I wanted to know, are these references incidental, just part of the material out of which the poems are composed, not unlike any other sort of references, say, to plants or economics? Or do they hint at an underlying religious or spiritual sensitivity? You will recall that I asked Shankar this when we talked with him about the book. The short version of his answer was that, yes, broadly speaking there is a spiritual sensitivity behind his poems.
But I really like what he specifically had to say about that, so I want to also present a somewhat longer answer, too. He told us that the poets he most admires “always have this dimension where the invisible is made visible in some way.” In his own poems, he hopes for “a sensitivity to the miraculous awe and wonder of being alive, which has a spiritual dimension for me.” He describes growing up Hindu and the effect that attending Hindu rituals and temples, including Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Northern Virginia, had on him when he was young: “All the liturgy was in Sanskrit, which was a language I didn’t understand, and yet somehow it always spoke to me and moved me, and so this idea of a language kind of speaking to your bloodstream in some way, that you’re not parsing in a rational way but that is musically affecting you, was really appealing to me.” About the poems he has now written as an adult, he said he hopes the “religious references are not ornamental but organically coming out of the meditation of the moment of construction and composition and revision, and hopefully can also help put the reader into that space.” All of that resonated with me. I am thinking about how all art can have this spiritual expansiveness to it—even if “spiritual” is understood as broadly as wonder at the miracle of being alive. While this “spiritual” layer of poetry does not have to be tied to a specific religion and does not require the use of specific religious terms, religious experiences can nonetheless be a source for it and religious phrases can cue readers to pay attention to it.
That phrase he used, about the musicality of the language having an effect, leads naturally to questions of poetic form, an aspect of this book that really stood out to you. What struck you about Shankar’s use of traditional (and I think a few invented) forms?
LISA: Thank you for your kind words about the poetic quality of my response. I’m not sure who made the observation you mentioned, that a good response to poetry is more poetry, but it makes total sense. Reading this work reminds me of when a mentor of mine, Teresa Cader, once said that a good way to warm up to the page is to read something that makes you want to write. That’s what The Many Uses of Mint did for me. I was fully immersed, I could scarcely turn away from it, but wanted to write as soon as I set it down. These are the kind of poems that do, for some writers, what a good vacation does for couples who have been married for a long time. It’s a departure from routine, which gives that “new love” jolt that made you fall in the first place. Paired with the depth that only comes with experience and time, a whole new euphoria rises in its place and lingers long after the return home.
This also touches on how I feel about Shankar’s use of form in the book, particularly as relates to repetition as a formal element. The departure from routine I experienced here was clarified when Ravi said he had invented his own forms. The reader can be certain of the presence of form in the text through its familiar signals, like rhyme and repetition, even if we can’t apply a known name to it. While there is an interesting use of internal rhyme throughout, and we see a more obvious villanelle in “Sam the Super,” or an inverted poem in “The Melancholy of Shadows at Dawn” as well as ekphrasis in pieces like “Rodeo Cowboy” and “Maine Islands,”—what I find most compelling is the ongoing use of repetition as a possible indicator of the places where Shankar has created forms of his own.
The repetition between poems like “Broca’s Area” and “The Cyprus Problem,” where in both he reveals what the subject is via listing many of the things it is not, gives a sense that they share the same guiding form. There are also several pieces that echo each other, both within and across poems placed just far enough away from each other in the book, with varied enough topics, that they feel not as obvious as siblings, but more like first cousins with a strong resemblance. “Heirlooms” and “Savagery” both open with “The castle looms blue upon the porcelain plate,” but then diverge into totally different narratives, tethered by their shared genesis. These juxtapositions are frequent and familiar enough to suggest an organic sense of cumulative form, that is whole poems that perhaps function as part of a greater pattern in concert with others. Whether on a small or large scale, you don’t have to know exactly what the form is, because he gives enough familiar context to make the leap based on what it is not. “Conjoined,” for example, appears to be a cleave poem, but then the three centered lines between “stanzas” make it clear that it is more “like” a cleave than actually being one.
Two of your favorite poems in the book, “Home Together” and “Misty Blue” are also an example of the symbiotic relationship between poems that seem to work in pairs throughout the book. Can you talk a bit about what resonated for you about these poems, both in terms of theme and form or craft?
PAUL: Each of these two poems quietly presents an interpersonal conflict—a tension, we might guess, between a married couple. One scene takes place early evening at home, the other on an afternoon stroll down broadway. In both, it’s just the two people and the hurtful words exchanged and the charged air between them that results. In the first poem, the speaker describes “words we can never have meant to speak, / but did, recanted, then spoke again” (131). In the second, it’s “a mild censure” that escalates step by step into “war” (132). These poems speak to me on a really personal level. Without getting too confessional here, they speak to my own experience being married. Such scenes as Shankar presents are pretty ordinary. There’s nothing too dramatic. No dishes are smashed. There’s no grand break up. But it’s an ordinariness charged with a quiet pain. These poems stand out in the collection for being a bit calmer and clearer, perhaps less experimental, stylistically speaking, than many of the other poems. They are both just short of being sonnets, twelve lines instead of fourteen.
Although each grabbed me individually, together they add up to something more. I am thinking that this is another example of what you’re talking about—how juxtaposition is a key formal quality in this book. The parallels between these two poems—mirroring each other in style and subject—make their differences starker, make, in particular, the two different directions they turn in at the end of each poem stand out all the more sharply. In the first poem, the harsh words that are spoken linger in the silence (“the vacuum”) between the couple. In the last biting line, the poet declares that these words “have staked between us a fence of teeth.” What a line. I feel that deeply. The second poem, though, turns in the opposite direction. Instead of the hostility lingering for hours, it melts instantly. On their walk, in the middle of the war of words, some romantic jazz music begins to play on the street. Here the poem ends with these words: “the music, while it lasts, changes everything.” I feel that deeply, too.
So each poem, on its own, just really captures so well these common charged moments of conflict among couples. But together, read side by side, or back to back as they appear in the book, the two poems offer a sort of multiple-choice or choose-your-own-adventure ending. Sometimes harsh words clamp their teeth into the air between two people, other times something beautiful melts the harsh words away in an instant, at least for the moment. What the two poems say is powerful. But what they don’t say—what they mean by existing in each other’s presence—makes them even more powerful. And that, once I say it out loud, is also precisely what the poems are about. What two people say to each other is important, but what they do not say—what they mean simply by being in each other’s presence—is probably even more important.
When I look at those two poems, I am zoomed in very closely at two pages, two dozen lines. This might be from my “close reading” training, but I find it somewhat difficult as a reader to read much more than a poem or two at once, to keep many pages in mind at the same time. But I notice one of your strengths as a reader is the ability to zoom out. You seem to be reading the whole book at once, picking up on textures that run through the whole thing. You’ve talked about various ways in which juxtaposition works in the book, for instance. But I am wondering whether there’s a specific poem that really caught your attention more than others, that made you stop and look at it if only for a bit. Perhaps it’s one that exemplifies the larger patterns you’re—or maybe one that contradicts those patterns.
LISA: I do find myself wired to take in a birds-eye view of a text. When confronted with a full collection, I’m as interested in the conversation/synergy between poems as I am in what they say on their own. This is perhaps why my observations tend to zoom out on the back end.
As I read, it’s more acute. Depth of field and juxtaposition fascinate me so the space between poems is an ongoing dance of position and perspective. If a striking line I read 50 pages before shows up again, I instantly remember the impact it made on me the first time. Then I get excited to investigate its new location, go back to revisit the other(s) and look at what role they play in the greater arc of the text. Perhaps it’s why I found the architecture of Shankar’s “everything all at once” approach so appealing.
I spent a lot of time with many poems in this book, but one that I sat with for quite a while, that I think connects best to what we’re discussing here, is “Notes Toward Timekeeping.” The first line arrested me. I could have thought about it for hours, had it not so intrigued me to dive into the rest of the poem. What could possibly follow a line that says: “Interrogate the role of the clock in the maintenance of Empire.”
The poem proceeds to shapeshift across time and place, zooming in and out of the concept of what time is (or isn’t), how it is used and measured. What it means as a cultural concept. Whether it controls or is to be controlled. Whether it is real, or an illusion. The poem, like time, and the reach of the overall book, spans the political, the personal, the natural, the cultural, the supernatural, the historical, the existential. The presence of a somewhat omniscient narrator provides a philosophical frame:
In the movies, time is abetted by edits. Cut from a plane taking off to a
plane landing in the same airport. A voyage taken place, time has passed.
Cut from a zoom in of a door handle to the interior of a room: space
has been moved through, fast forward ahead. Use a montage of images to
depict passing time; use voiceover to move the action forwards, backwards,
into and away from the leading edge of the narrative.
This stanza speaks to the “clockwork” behind this poem, the theme and even the book. The other stanzas are broad in their scope and reach, but seamlessly bound. The reader is safe to “make the road by walking” because “time” itself is the Due North that delivers on its promise to bring it all together. All of it at once concrete, yet elusive. Inextricably connected. Like time.
I pasted this stanza on the clipboard above my desk as a meditation on craft, and spiritual perspective. Many poems in this book struck a chord in me. Many of the lush, gorgeous lines enchanted me, but this is the writing that quite literally ended up on my wall. The first poem I remember you talking about when we started this discussion was “Breast Feeding at the Blue Mosque.” It made such an impression on you, I would love to hear more about why. Was it technique, content or some combination of the two?
PAUL: The poem “Breast Feeding at the Blue Mosque,” Ravi told us, stems from his visit to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul, where the difficulty and restrictions he witnessed the mother of his children face moving around in Turkey and in the mosque led him to critique the religious impulse that exists in some traditions to “vulgarize” the body, particularly women’s bodies and particularly breasts. This is wrong because it oppresses women. But it’s also nonsensical because the same traditions are at least ostensibly supposed to be life-affirming and breastfeeding is integral to how so many of us are even alive.
And that connection between the breast and life got him thinking about “the maternal divine.” So not only is the religious shaming of breasts an affront to women but it should also be seen as an affront to true religion. The poem ends, “La ilah ha il Allah”—a transliteration of the Shahada, the Islamic declaration that there is no god but God—“is a breast in a mouth, else nothing is” (77). So the idea of the poem is that the body breastfeeding is not sacrilege but sacred. To that I say amen. I like the juxtaposition, to return to that term we’ve been discussing, of sacred and sacrilegious. It would normally be considered blasphemous to call the breast divine. But the poem seems to say that the real blasphemy is to not do that.
One more layer to this poem, another juxtaposition, really just makes the poem work for me as a poem, beyond just expressing values I agree with to making something beautiful and rich out of language, using unexpected combinations. We’ve got the feminist layer, and the spiritual layer, as I’ve described, but then we’ve also got this “scientific” layer. It appears in such lines as these, which describe biologically and cosmically what happens in the act of breast feeding:
raw biology of milk conveyed by ducts lined with capillaries,
made from pouring stuff of stars: nourishment that manifests
minerals for bone from pulsing light. (77)
If earth itself and everything on it was once “the stuff of stars,” before the planet formed from cosmic dust, then that includes our bodies and whatever our bodies produce or consume, such as milk. So breastfeeding is one scoop of star stuff “pouring” another scoop of star stuff into another scoop of star stuff. That’s all scientific, astronomy, natural history. But it also sounds sacred, to me, described in the way Shankar describes it, especially with phrases like “pulsing light.” So a breast nourishing a child is a holy act in a holy cosmos.
To answer your question directly, then, the old saws about form and content extending each other apply here. Both the technique and the theme of the poem is to pull together religion, and (women’s) bodies, and the cosmos.
LISA: What a spot on interpretation, Paul, this embodiment of the thin line between spirit and science in a cosmic pulling together. I find that to be the greatest overall strength of the book. Many collected works serve as a nice way to have a person’s writings in one place, but don’t necessarily become an entity of their own. Shankar’s mastery of this “pulling together” of a wealth of themes means all of these individual pieces, perhaps even the previous volumes they hail from, find a next life as they serve as ingredients to the whole that is The Many Uses of Mint.
The last set of themes I want to mention are food and travel. I felt they were among the key threads that pull the wide range of pieces in this collection together. When I asked Ravi about this, particularly the presence of food as an entry point to place, he replied, “Sensory is an important part of being alive, and of course food is a big part of that. Traveling, part of the way you access culture is gastronomically, through the food . . . just as much as architecture, religion or anything else. Food becomes a great metaphor for art, because when you eat you’re tasting it, and it can be very complicated and be nuanced and have layers of flavor. But then when you take it inside of you and you digest it that’s when it kind of transforms into something that you can potentially use. For me the art that really moves me is almost like I’m taking it in, and I’m making it part of me. So that idea of food being transubstantiated into the body is like poetry to me.”
As a poet, food and travel writer, that single quote was nothing short of a revelation.
The very title of this collection, alludes to the sense of taste. When I asked Ravi why he chose “The Many Uses of Mint” as the title poem, he laughed and admitted that it was initially his publisher’s idea. But upon further thought, he discovered that it worked quite well. The idea that mint has multiple uses, as well as the word itself having more than one meaning, captured his approach to this collection and perhaps his work as a whole.
“When I think of mint I think of it as an herb, and minting money, or making things new, all of these different ways in which you can perceive language. In my own work, I never wanted to have to choose. I know that there are certain poets that have a very spare, pared down vocabulary. But for me what is so powerful, and what I realize now having two cultures to craft my identity from, is that having all of it, not having to choose, but having something that may be more experimental and confessional at the same time. Not having to pledge my allegiance to one aesthetic school or another, that was always important to me in my work and putting this together.”
When planted, mint is prolific. It’s not prim nor proper, and takes up lots of space. In fact, mint will take over any container or landscape you plant it in, unwilling to be any less than its full self. Mint does not defer or conform. In spiritual practices, it’s used to cleanse energy and break curses. When consumed, it soothes and is also a digestive. After hearing Ravi speak so beautifully, it occurred to me that the title could not be a more perfect embodiment of this collection, the process behind it and the poet. The mint in the title serves to aid in this process of transubstantiation Ravi described. The reader can digest the abundance of complicated and layered themes, this feast, this everything all at once, because at its core our host has steeped the elixir that breaks it all down. Each poem delivers a distinct nuance that, when added to the pot with the others, creates a flavor to rival the most complex of curries. The Many Uses of Mint invites the reader to take it all in, let it linger on the tongue, make it part of them and fuel a higher understanding. The result? A transcendent insight into place, culture, spirit and, indeed, the greater human experience.
Paul T. Corrigan teaches English at the University of Tampa. He has an abiding love of trees and of reading. His essays and poems have appeared in TheAtlantic.com, The Ekphrastic Review, Saint Katherine Review, Poets Reading the News, Book of Matches, and elsewhere. Twice he won the Rattle Ekphrastic Challenge. He has just begun serving as the poetry editor for The Tampa Review.
Lisa Pegram, MFA is a Washington, DC native writer, educator, literary publicist and acquisitions editor. Author of Cracked Calabash (Central Square Press) and winner of the DC Mayor’s Arts Award, her work has been published in anthologies by Random House and Black Classic Press, and magazines such as L’Officiel and Atlas Obscura. She was DC WritersCorps program director for a decade and has over 20 years of experience in literary program design for such organizations as the Smithsonian Institute, Corcoran Gallery of Art and National Geographic. In 2018, she completed an Executive Certification in Arts & Culture Strategies from UPenn. She is currently based on the Caribbean island of Curacao.