In 2023, the Academy of American Poets invited twelve poets to each curate a month of poems. In this short Q&A, Divya Victor discusses her curatorial approach and her own creative work.
Poets.org: Welcome to the Guest Editor Q&A, hosted by the Academy of American Poets. I’m Mary Sutton, senior content editor at the Academy, and I’m here today with our Guest Editor for August, Divya Victor. Divya is the author most recently of the poetry collection Curb, winner of the 2022 PEN Open Book Award and the 2022 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Divya, welcome and thank you.
Divya Victor: Thank you Mary. Glad to be here.
Poets.org: Glad to have you. Let’s jump right in. How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day for the month of August?
Victor: I admire poets who treat language as both a problem and a probe into the everyday. So I curated work from poets who wrestle with language as a localized act, as material speech that’s situated in nameable instances that hail us as marked subjects. I chose poems that may look harder, think in new shapes, demand more questions, and especially, I chose poems that go beyond seeking affirming, epiphanic assent. And I also wanted to bring an internationalist breadth to the curation with poets hailing from Canada, Chile, Singapore, and India. And those whose contributions ask us to acknowledge the U.S. American debt to Anglophone writing “elsewhere.” I wanted August to acknowledge the elsewheres that make our language local and the poetry that can make those elsewheres feel like home as well.
Poets.org: You know, when you talk about the ways in which we’re “hailed” as marked subjects, the literary theorist in me can’t help but to connect that to Louis Althusser and that theory about Ideological State Apparatuses and the ways in which we are interpellated, as Althusser noted, or “called” to subject ourselves to certain roles or values. For example, if you hail from the U.S. or the U.K., there is this presumption that the literatures from each respective country comprise the true Anglophone canon. So what interests me, especially when when I think about your work is, you know, are there any specific changes that you hope to see in how Anglophone poetry is taught or disseminated?
Victor: Well, I think we’re in a complex and energized and interesting moment in which we are talking about identity in an expanded sense. I want us to be thinking about identity beyond demographics. I want us to be thinking about identity intersectionally, particularly as it pertains to our positionality geopolitically. You know, especially Anglophone writing coming out of the U.S., I don’t think we are considering enough our, you know, what I like to think of as our necropolitical advantage as American writers, U.S. American writers, who are often writing from within the securities of the academy. And if there is a change I would like to see in how we’re talking about identity, I want to see those questions of nation and necropolitical advantage and the, you know, the great devastations of U.S. empire, you know, that continue throughout the world to be addressed much more directly, much more frontally.
Poets.org: In an interview that you did with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in 2021, you interrogated concepts that connect us to a sense of national identity, which you’ve just touched on, arguing that we need to forge “coalitional efforts […] in the imaginary.” Can you talk a bit more about that?
Victor: Think about coalitional efforts in contrast to, or in a kind of tension with, the notion of belonging. Because I think, you know, speaking as a subject of the South Asian diaspora, I think the inclination to belong has led to some really difficult types of identity formations that align with Indo-supremacy, fascism, and conservative ideologies, generally. And I think the, you know, many people in my community—or communities, I should say, you know, ethnolinguistically or religiously—feel they have to make political compromises in order to belong. And the more we can think about, think away from belonging and towards building coalition with those from other identity groups, I think the more we can achieve for more of us.
Poets.org: If you could direct readers to one poem in our collection at Poets.org that you haven’t curated, what would it be and why?
Victor: Oh, sure. I would really like to choose a poem that focuses on this notion of the everyday, this notion of language as a localized act. And so I’d like us to head towards Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s “Conjure” because it enacts language’s really terrific capacity as a shapeshifter, a trickster, an illusionist who opens us to real uncertainties of historical moments, which in Rachel’s poem includes the everyday. And it was written in 2020 when many of us were, you know, looking at the everyday with a great deal of uncertainty. And that uncertainty marks the historical moment. And this particular poem plays with idioms and puns and typographic signals that keep language really labile and expands our sense of what it means to document a day or a year. And so in keeping with Poem-a-Day, I wanted to bring up “Conjure,” which makes us question how time is divided, organized, and understood through poetry. And I think, ultimately, this poem helps me think about poetry as a ritual of calling up, conjuring something, someone somewhere who isn’t present yet.
Poets.org: Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s “Conjure” was published in Poem-a-Day on September 23, 2022, as part of Guest Editor Cynthia Hogue’s curation. Divya, what are you reading right now?
Victor: Oh, I’m so happy to be reading all the time now at Civitella Ranieri’s library. And you know, I’m always reading my friends’ poems, but I’m also reading Wendy S. Walters’s extraordinary essay collection Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal, which I absolutely love. I’m also reading Anne Carson’s Decreation, and I just finished reading Sarah Thankam Mathews’s debut novel All this Could Be Different, which is such a breakthrough and brilliant work. And I’m reading Emily Ogden’s On Not Knowing: How to Love and Other Essays‚ which I’m actually rereading because it’s teaching me a lot about the essay form. And I’ve just begun Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return.
Poets.org: And what are you working on now in your writing, teaching, and publishing life? You’ve mentioned that you’re in Italy. You might want to say a bit more about that, if you’re so inclined.
Victor: Sure. Yes, thank you. I’m at a residency, which is allowing me to focus on a new collection of essays, prose poems, and ephemeral or transitory genres that take pleasure in understanding touch, curiosity, bliss, and frisson in literature, visual arts, film, and architecture. And it’s a collection that’s particularly focused on the South Asian diaspora’s contribution to these fields.
Poets.org: That sounds wonderful. Thank you so much for joining me for this, and I’m so excited to see what’s next for you.
Victor: Thank you so much, Mary.