“A way forward that does not pretend the past was different than what it was”: An Interview with Rushi Vyas

When I first read Rushi Vyas’s writing, I was immediately struck by the musicality of his work: the way he incorporates both rhythm and imagery throughout his lines, the way he never loses sight of the poem’s larger meaning. His writing reads like a song which, initially, overtakes you with its layering of melodies until you are able to discern the exact purpose of each individual note. I was not surprised to learn that Rushi has worked on several musical collaborations that have put his poems to song, one of the many topics we discuss in this interview. 

Rushi is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection, When I Reach For Your Pulse (Four Way Books 2023), which was a two-time finalist for the National Poetry Series in the US. He is a current Ph.D. student at Te Whare Wānanga o Ōtākou / University of Otago. He also serves as reviews/interviews editor for Gasher Journal, and his writing has been published in The Georgia Review, Indiana Review, Pigeon Pages, Landfall (New Zealand), Redivider, Boulevard, Tin House, The Offing, Adroit, Waxwing, and elsewhere. In this interview, conducted across the globe overa Google Doc, Rushi offered generous answers on somatic rituals, social responsibility, “pursuing your passion,” and more.

You’ve mentioned that you are interested in the ways ritual and poetry converge. In your poem “The Constable of Doubt,” I was mesmerized by the lines:   

Shadow the breath that colors me
Solitude my ritual communion with oxygen
gifted by the succulent   

What initially drew you to explore the intersection between ritual and poetry in your writing? Are there any writers or texts you find yourself in conversation with when doing so?

Thank you for finding that relatively new poem and for the thoughtful question. First, a little context for the poem which might lead into answering your question. In 2019, I moved to Aotearoa, New Zealand after my partner accepted a job at the University of Otago. It was a long way from Brooklyn and from our families in the US. One strange way that I coped was through watching all of the Star Trek series which are available through Netflix in New Zealand. I had many friends in the US who were Trekkies, but I had never watched it myself. In the series Deep Space Nine, there is a shapeshifting character named Constable Odo who must revert to a gelatinous state every 16 hours to regenerate. This poem, inspired partially by Odo and by a photograph of the sky by Carlos Biggemann, resulted from a mix of reflecting on diaspora and attempting to embody the voice of the Constable.  

That seeming non sequitur plays into my interest in ritual in that my obsession with ritual in poetry coincided with immigrating to Aotearoa (the Māori name for the land colonially known as New Zealand). The move across the Pacific, coupled with the separation reinforced by the pandemic and travel restrictions, has pushed me to think about diaspora, and subsequently my conscious relationship (or lack thereof) to the lands I have inhabited. In Aotearoa New Zealand, conversations around indigeneity feel much more common than in the US, at least in the suburban Ohio circles in which I grew up. 

Due to the work of Māori thinkers, artists, activists, and scholars, many people over here in the Pacific are at least critically conscious of the complicated colonial history. As someone who may be in this place for a long time, I see it as a responsibility to learn about this history, to consider it in how I inhabit this new place and how I relate to my other places of ancestry—namely the US and India. 

Ritual provides a way for me to concretize ideas and theoretical thoughts. It’s one thing to think in abstract terms about my relation to land or the ways that I have been entangled in colonial histories. It is another to actually consider how I might change the ways I move, live, and choose because of that knowledge. Somatic rituals provide a container for me to translate theory into practice. And given that one British colonial tactic in conquering various places was to utilize pre-existing rituals in a culture and subsume them within British ideals, I think there is a reclamation of agency that arises when one is conscious about the rituals they want to enact. 

In my rituals, I try to merge the ancestral spiritual Sanskrit chants that my mother passed down to me with Anglophone poetry through which I express myself creatively. I pair those bits of language with some sort of action that forces me to confront ways I have been entangled with attachments to power, whether that be colonial modes of bodily comportment, patriarchal inheritances, or caste-related hierarchies from my Indian ancestry. 

Right now, I am particularly interested in Bhanu Kapil’s use of somatic rituals throughout her oeuvre, how there is little separation between practice and “product” in Kapil’s work. She constructs rituals to actually think and breathe through unsolvable questions. These questions often center around migration, partition, gender-based violence, racism, and colonialism. Also, CA Conrad’s use of ritual as a generative practice is such an inspiration to me, too. As far as theoretical frameworks, not necessarily ritual-related, but colonialism related—Linda Tuhiwai-Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies and Julietta Singh’s Unthinking Mastery have informed alot of my thinking in the past two years in addition to Eduoard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation

So often the act of writing is viewed as a solitary practice, one that is centered around individualism and self-reliance. You co-authored the chapbook Between Us, Not Half a Saint with Rajiv Mohabir. What was the process of collaborating with another poet like? 

Healing. Energizing. I think you’re right, that people look at writing as a solitary practice. But that is a fiction. Even if you go into the woods and write in a cabin for a week, your surroundings co-write the book with you. Also, all of the work that you have read, all of the relationships that you have…those co-write the book with you. I believe that no book is ever written “alone” and co-authoring this chapbook was a tangible reminder of that. At first, I was a fan of Rajiv’s poetry. Then, through his kindness, he became a mentor. But that mentorship has grown into a friendship through conversation, through words. Once we conceived of the project, writing these poems came, not easily, but quickly. We energized each other with each missive sent back and forth. In collaboration, I think poems become, at least in part, love letters to a friend. I hope Between Us, Not Half a Saint, makes palpable that we as writers feed one another, especially when we enter into our relationships and questions with care and reverence. 

In many of your poems, such as “Dear Paranoia” and “Beads,” I notice that you use the field of composition in a surprising way, often introducing extra white space. How do you decide what poems lend themselves to this stylistic choice, and is there any particular method you use to determine where the line breaks should be placed?

I think I am supposed to use this space to make a brilliant case for all of my craft choices. Unfortunately, I am still, in my eyes, a young poet in that I’ve only been doing this for a little less than a decade. I am a constant tinkerer. I am in the final edits of the manuscript for my forthcoming collection When I Reach for Your Pulse (2023) and I am still playing with form and line. With the two poems you mentioned, the white space, I believe, comes in through interstitial pauses within the line. I love a well-punctuated poem, but I also have noticed that I can tend to lean on punctuation to control breath and utterance and, maybe this is a performative, anxious, overly self-conscious tick, to appease “the canonical reader” and show that I am “in control.” 

I think part of my play with white space is about personal growth, letting go of that perfectionist tendency to want to be in control. This is also partially related to masculinity and my relationship with my father who is central to both of those poems. I think that through my father I learned a masculinity that is obsessed with controlling for variable outcomes, one that is paranoid. And in my house, my father’s moods, through his own paranoias and undiagnosed illness, often controlled how me and my family would breathe or hold our breaths. So maybe my play with white space is about letting go of that inherited impulse to control. Allowing breath in. Allowing the reader to read into that space what they will. 

As far as how I decide what poems play with white space and which don’t, it often changes. My computer often runs out of file space because I sometimes have, no joke, hundreds of versions of poems. In fact, most of my poems which have been published online will likely appear differently in book form. I don’t look at publication as a final destination for a poem, but as an experimental platform. We all go through different incarnations throughout our life. If you asked friends of mine twelve years ago what I would be, I don’t think a single one of them would have said “poet.” Each poem gets to go through different lives, too.

I am an intuitive writer in that I am often thinking about breath, pacing, multiplicity, and that I enact those based on feel more than rational logics. I might use traditional punctuation if I think the content of the poem has a propulsive quality to it rather than a ruminative one. I might use white space if I want to give the reader some extra space to breathe through difficult content. For line breaks, I am often trying to maximize multiplicity—enjambment is what got me interested in poetry to begin with. Maybe enjambment also offers a way to loosen the reigns of control, to lean into lines and words meaning more than I alone intend. So I can learn from the poem as much as a potential reader might. 

In your poem “When I Reach for Your Pulse,” you write: 

Try not 


to think. Let the mind be water where no thought lingers
not even a cicada’s hum, a father’s breath. Being occupies the river,
opens to white clouds that will not be after the sun
sets behind stones. 

When I read the lines above, I was struck by the imperative, ‘try not to think,’ initially because of the placement of the section break. I love how you dislocate the thought mid-sentence, offering the reader an unexpected twist to a colloquial command. As I read on, your words reminded me how reading and writing poetry is often rooted in the impulse to interpret another’s thoughts or our own. And perhaps dispelling this urge to analyze our world can lead to greater understanding. When you write poetry, is it more of a conscious act, one that requires a great deal of active thinking, or do you find writing to be more of a subconscious practice that results from simply being?

Thank you again, Regina, for that generous and thoughtful reading. I am so glad to hear your interpretation as I think you’ve articulated something I try to do, but have not consciously thought about. I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m hedging, but I think writing is both for me. I hope there’s a multiplicity and tension in that “Try not / to think.” On one level, yes, the speaker is imploring himself to stay present, not overanalyze. 

However, on another, the imperative is a defense mechanism sneaking into thought, in that the speaker is trying not to think of the ants he accidentally steps on, is trying to avoid confronting the many accidental violences that accrue from being alive. And maybe another way to interpret the imperative is the speaker attempting to stay with a difficult feeling, to stop rationalizing the feeling away. 

Meditation plays a large role in my creative practice and life. But it is important to me not to use meditative techniques and a leaning into the subconscious as a way to evade critical thought in the editing process. I think in the past, many writers, mostly male, tried to get away with irresponsible writing by leaning too heavily on a valorization of the subconscious. A lot of my writing does arise from a subconscious impulse, and I am a big fan of short bursts of automatic writing to loosen up. And it’s a joy when writing surprises and teaches me something I wasn’t consciously aware I was thinking. But creating space for the mind to be quiet not only invites the subconscious, but it creates space to allow thought to be more textured when I do sit down to think critically. I bring active thinking and research into the editing process. 

While I am a big believer in writing whatever comes out, I see publishing as an act that requires a writer to acknowledge social responsibility. And that social responsibility means balancing the subconscious with a conscious attempt to figure out what my inner poet self was trying to say, and to help communicate that more clearly. 

I’m very excited to read your book When I Reach For Your Pulse, which is forthcoming from the esteemed press Four Way Books in 2023. How did this poetry collection come to be? 

Building on the last answer, I think one way that I “try not / to think” is that I am often not a “project writer” when it comes to my individual work. I like to write, amass work, and then go back through and find what themes, obsessions, and questions I had. When I Reach For Your Pulse started as my M.F.A. thesis, the first draft of which was finished at the beginning of 2018. The current version now includes poems (revised over and over again) from 2014-2021. The poems circle the event of finding my father dead by suicide in 2013. I did not set out to write a book about this heavy event in my life. In fact, I did not really want to write a book so directly about the event at all. But my poems kept leading me back there. 

For a few years, I was dancing around the topic in poems that I shared with peers. I kept dwelling in abstraction and scientific concepts, perhaps afraid to let the pen go where it needed to go. My teacher, Ruth Ellen Kocher, was so important in facilitating me moving toward this book. In a workshop in 2016, I turned in the first draft of my poem “Beads,” which was the first poem in which I finally let myself get concrete about details related to my family and my father’s death. Ruth Ellen and my workshop mates, recognized that poem for the breakthrough that it was for me, personally. I had been afraid to reveal too much, afraid to write into culturally specific themes. I did not want to be reduced in the eyes of others as someone who wrote about their “identity” which you can read as “non white.” Because even today, when so much brilliant literature is produced by writers of color, you hear the undercurrents of “well it lacks craft, but the narrative meets what the market wants.” Those voices that I had internalized in my head, had stopped me from writing what I had to write. 

I am lucky that I was in a workshop that was supportive and that encouraged me to dig deeper. After that moment, I looked back at my writing and realized I was making all of these obscure references to my father. My body wanted me to write into it and my mind was getting in the way, or rather my fear of risking vulnerability. So, I stopped censoring myself. What emerged is a book that has gone through probably 30-plus iterations at this point (like I said, I’m a tinkerer). But at the heart it’s about facing the unsolvable and difficult, sitting with the grief we cannot escape to uncover what’s hidden and create a way forward. A way forward that does not forget. A way forward that does not pretend the past was different than what it was. 

Similarly, when you began writing this collection of poems, did you find yourself returning to any particular works for inspiration?

Since I was in graduate school, I was reading quite widely at the time, including work by my peers, and I did not fixate too much on any one book. I think I’m a generous reader, sometimes to my own detriment and at the expense of a more rigorous criticality. I feel like a sponge and I’m sure there were things I was reading that I absorbed, but that I’m not completely conscious of. Having said that, there were some works that kept circling my mind, some of which were unexpected. 

I’m thinking now of Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost Of, a book that centers around the suicide of the poet’s brother. I heard Diana read in Colorado towards the end of my time there, when I was in the midst of arranging the first draft of my collection. To hear her work which speaks so directly to the trauma of familial loss, and yet carried her own formal experiments and peculiar observations from the world encouraged me to keep going, to trust that I could write this book. Roger Reeves’ King Me, the way it is richly allusive, earnest, and yet never at the expense of the lyric mood of each poem also was a book I kept around. For a long poem scattered through my book called “Suicide Note in absentia” I drew from Frank Bidart’s long persona poems, which pushed me to try and write into my father’s voice, to create a note he never left us. And Lisa Robertson’s book, Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture, was a book of essays that completely caught me by surprise, particularly her essay “Doubt and the History of Scaffolding” which I sample from in a long poem called “Scaffold.” 

Another book I’ve returned to over and over again, but cannot tell you why (because my book is in an entirely different voice and lyric mode) is Sueyuen Juliette Lee’s Solar Maximum. Maybe it’s my interest in sci-fi. Maybe it’s the bizarre and beautiful world her poems create. It is a book I cannot explain and would not dare write a review for. It baffles me. And yet I return. I even typed up the whole book once trying to recreate the form in a word document on my computer. Is there any connection to my book? I don’t know. But I kept looking at it in awe. 

Other than that, two things that I listened to a lot during the time of making this book were Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and Vijay Iyer’s album Accelerando. Bartok’s work in the background helped me think about an overall arc. Iyer’s music became meditative, and a way to think about the stilting of lyric time. Recently, I’ve been listening on loop to Kris Davis’s album Diatom Ribbons and guitarist Yasmin Williams’s instrumental music in addition to collaborator Yuma Uesaka’s group Ocelot

Speaking of music, I notice that you have done a few collaborations that have set poems to music. I myself am very interested in how poetry is similar to music, especially when repetition is used. Did working on projects that incorporated both song and poetry influence your writing in any way?

My subconscious entry point into poetry was my mother teaching me Sanskrit slokas (devotional songs, prayers, and mantras) in the car as a child. My mother is a beautiful singer herself and it was important to her that I learn these songs in the US. As someone who moved to the US from India in her 20s with the intention to permanently settle in the US, those songs were a thread to a previous life. She needed them to stay alive in me, and they have. I don’t know what many of the songs mean, but I can feel it in the melody and timbre of the words. I can piece together symbolism from the few words that I know. Those songs are memorized deep within me and I chant many of them everyday, at least in my head.

Historically, poetry and music were not so separated from one another. Poetry pays attention to the music pre-existent within words and syntax. When I’m my goofy self at home, I am constantly playing with the sounds of words, morphing them, misshaping them. It’s the way my inner child stays alive and it’s my main sense of humor. Thankfully, my partner finds it more funny than annoying! The Sanskrit words and songs my mother taught me, and the blend of English, Hindi, and Gujarati with which my parents spoke, gave me these cross-lingual sounds to play with. The cognates and homophones. A playground of sound within language which, as I’ve grown older, I’ve come into, maybe, a deeper curiosity and (ir)reverence with—a desire not just to play, but to listen differently, to learn about other resonances those words might have. 

Maybe this history with sound is why I’m drawn to musical collaboration. These collaborations continue to influence my writing in that they cause me to listen in different ways. I am fortunate that my partner is an amazing singer who performs and teaches western classical art songs, jazz, and who is learning Hindustani classical music in the Thumri style as well. Tessa(they/them) often collaborates with composers and has brought me and my poems into that process several times. While some composers have composed music to poems I’ve already written (the composer Andrew Perkins has recently written a three-song cycle to my poems), and sometimes I edit poems with the music in mind (the composer Kenneth Young is currently finishing a song cycle to six poems). 

Recently, I had the thrill of writing poems for an album booklet for an improvisational collaboration between saxophonist Yuma Uesaka and pianist Marilyn Crispell called Streams which you can buy here. For each of these projects, the poetry is quite different and very much based on my mode of listening depending on the type of music. For one song cycle, I can do nothing but wait and see what the composer does! For another, I edited the poem along with my partner to think about ease of singing. For the collaboration with Uesaka, I listened again and again to their recordings and wrote in response. 

I don’t know exactly how my writing changes with each project, but I love how it keeps me engaged and agile in how I listen. 

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the pressure, especially young adults feel, to define their careers, to know exactly what they want to do. I read that you were a medical school dropout, so I was wondering how you decided that poetry was something you wanted to pursue? 

Thanks for this question and apologies if this answer is a bit too long. But until recently, I thought a little too simplistically about this type of question and now I better understand the historical connections that have allowed me to be who I am. For each person, there is a different amalgam of social pressures, financial constraints, familial wishes, personal desires, cultural narratives, and institutional barriers to navigate. My circumstance was very much shaped by way of immigration and diaspora from a South Asian context, which itself is molded by the histories and traumas of British colonialism, partition, caste hierarchies, and patriarchal structures. My parents, due to the luck of being brahmin or high caste in India, were provided access to educational opportunities that enabled them to immigrate. In the US, anti-black immigration legislation in the Hart-Celler Act of 1965—created in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement— enabled “non-white” immigration and incentivized my parents to ride their education and training to the US. I say that the legislation ended up being “anti-black” in that the US government subsequently turned this piece of legislation, fought for by black intellectuals and activists, into the creation of the Model Minority myth. 

I start with that broad picture because that context is crucial to me even being able to have the “choice” to pursue writing. My parents were raised in a cultural context that did not ever talk about “pursuing your passion.” Career decisions were made collectively, and in my parents’ case, that collectivity was not challenged. In the wake of partition and globalization following British colonization, the line between stability and ruin felt precarious. From childhood, my parents would study morning and night in their brahmin households in order to maintain their relative security in society. When my parents got to the US, they had little. But they worked. And worked. They did not know any different.

At some point, the survival instinct that drove my parents to work, to come to the US, to ensure an educational future for their children, became superfluous. They had saved enough money to send their kids to school without having to worry about debt, a luxury they did not have. And yet, they kept accumulating for some unforeseeable future, because it had become a habit and part of the “dream” of generational wealth in the US. My parents’ labor afforded me the privilege to calmly notice the compulsive accumulation that is so common in the US. That privilege enabled me to see that perpetual accumulation was not something I wanted to replicate. Besides, I took to my mother’s philosophical interests that emphasized detachment from possessions. 

I recently read a quote from Divya Victor on Entropy Mag that so eloquently stated an observation I’ve had of many in the Indian community I grew up with in the US. In talking about epigenetic trauma, she cites Vijay Prashad in noticing “‘the inward turn’ among many South Asians in the US who prefer the accumulation of securities over the exercise of their rights.” I don’t see this as a fault alone, but as a trauma response. Parents want to protect because they know the violence colonialism and the construction of white supremacy can cause in the world. But in that defensive posture, they end up enabling the system to continue.

My parents wanted me to become a doctor just as my father was a doctor. I was the South Asian cliché and myth, that brown child who is supposed to become a doctor, engineer, a lawyer—secure occupations (many people still assume I’m one of those things when I meet them). I never felt comfortable in hospitals and was drawn more to the humanities than the sciences. But I still went through the motions, learned to do well enough in the science classes and found myself in medical school, being too afraid to cause suffering in the house by going against my father’s wishes. In medical school I started writing crappy fiction and reading a lot. I skipped most classes, and just did enough to scrape out with passing grades. 

After finishing the year, I made the decision to confront my father and tell him that I wouldn’t become a doctor. It remains one of the toughest things I have done, but I was quite miserable and realized that I might become a sub-par, bitter physician, if I stuck to something outside of my skillset. I ended up finding a job as a career advisor and pre-med advisor at the university level and started to reshape my life with an interest in facilitative skills, writing, and pedagogy. While working, I continued to write and audited a creative writing course. My first writing teacher, Jessica Young, was the first one to tell me I might be more interested in writing poetry than the plotless fiction I had been writing. I thought about pursuing a teaching degree or becoming a therapist. I worked in a restaurant and I worked with a small educational start-up. But I kept coming back to teaching and writing and eventually started to get some support for writing.

I’ve watched a video where Ross Gay was asked how he “knew he had to be a poet.” He responded, that he didn’t have to be, that if it wasn’t for poetry, he would find another thing to do and love. I think I feel that way with poetry. I love connecting with people, facilitating, and asking big questions. I love how art can be an entry point into those things. I poured myself into poetry because that’s the artform that felt most available to me, the form where opportunities opened chances for me to create, connect, and ask difficult questions. 

I love that poetry is a space where we can really question how we are living, where we don’t force answers, but listen to the world in order to understand and perceive in new ways. It’s clear the stories that have become dominant in driving human behavior up to this point in time are unsustainable, that despite our technological advancements they have led imaginations to shape the crises we are living in. I see that in my own family history, in the internalized trauma etched into behavior, in the patriarchal abuse that clouded over my house as a child. In poetry, we can investigate those stories that have shaped us, and write into new stories that honor the fact that we don’t yet know the way forward. I am so lucky that the histories and stories that brought me here have enabled me to say yes to this very unknown way forward through poetry, facilitation, and teaching. As long as I put work out there and folks seem to appreciate it, I’ll be here. If the time comes when that ends, I’ll find another way to connect, to keep leaning into difficult questions.

Regina Rosenfeld (assistant editor) is an 18-year-old writer living in New York City. She attends Barnard College of Columbia University.

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