The disciplined life of Ohio's first poet laureate-a rising literary star and a full-time nuclear radiologist
The disciplined life of Ohio's first poet laureate-a rising literary star and a full-time nuclear radiologist
When Amit Majmudar was a child, he read spy novels obsessively, so much so, he eventually wrote his own James Bond novels. One day, using a dot-matrix printer and a three-ring binder bought at OfficeMax, he sent a completed manuscript to the New York offices of G.P. Putnam's Sons, the longtime publisher of the Ian Fleming series. "It was literally about James Bond. It had gadgets. It had sex scenes," Majmudar says during a recent interview at his home office in Dublin, recalling with a self-deprecating laugh this 12-year-old version of himself, oblivious to the ins and outs of copyright law. G.P. Putnam's returned the novel he'd titled "The Sun Racer," along with an encouraging rejection note. But the brash budding writer, who was recently named poet laureate of Ohio, was undeterred: "I thought, 'how dare they!'"
The story, in starting with a curious aside, a seemingly insignificant footnote in a writer's life, resembles the beginnings to much of Majmudar's writings, a prodigious body of work that includes two novels, countless literary essays and three acclaimed poetry collections, most recently, "Dothead," which Knopf published in March. It's Majmudar doing what he does with such rare and exceptional ease: Calling us in, making sure we're listening by offering some charming tidbit of insignificance, until he transports us somewhere else, gets us to where he really wants to take us.
In this case, it's India, where the rejected three-ring binder travels during a family trip, left on the coffee table of a bustling living room in Gujarat, where his parents are originally from. One day, another young Indian-American teenager visits and, bored on a lazy afternoon, opens and reads, "The Sun Racer." She is Ami Buch. In French, ami means friend, and in German, buch means book, Majmudar explains. So her full name means friend of the book. At last the story arrives at its fantastical end: Ami Buch is now Ami Buch Majmudar, his wife of nearly 16 years, the mother of their three children. "That is incredible to me," Majmudar told me. "She was my first reader. My first reader!"
Many more readers and books followed-and indeed, Majmudar's output is impressive for any writer of 36, but considering he earned a medical degree at Northeast Ohio Medical University and works full-time as a nuclear radiologist, it is somewhat inexplicable-until the writer discloses his disciplined daily schedule: "I just don't do things. I go to work, workout, hang out with my family, read and write, eat and sleep. That's basically what I do. We don't own a television, I never watch sports. I don't go out."
Majmudar has always written as a literary outsider-he never earned an MFA and even his undergraduate degree in natural sciences was fairly humanities-free. These dual identities are something he jokes about. He even referred to himself in an email exchange as "the Indian-American un-credentialed upstart."
His poetry, in addition to finding a place in prestigious national outlets likeThe New YorkerandThe Atlantic, has been lauded by critics and published widely. Billy Collins, the former U.S. poet laureate, in a blurb for "Dothead,"said the collection "amounts to nothing less than a torrent of poetic inventiveness," calling it "riveting and enviable" and noting its expansive range of subjects: drones, torture, immigration, weaponry, James Bond, King Lear, Hinduism, medical practice and the sex life of Adam and Eve. In a recent review, Dwight Garner, aNew York Timesbook critic, described "Dothead" as "charming and urgent in equal measure" and praised Majmudar for addressing "the vicissitudes of life as an Indian-American." Garner also took note of Majmudar's poem, "ABECEDARIAN," which appears in the new collection, calling it an "epic ode to oral sex." It's an apt description. Formatted as a series of stanzas in alphabetical order, as the title suggests, the ode begins with a meditation on Adam:
The only proof we have of intelligent design is that Adam could not connect his mouth to his penis….If given the ability to fellate himself, he would have poured himself endlessly into himself.
The 26-stanza romp closes with "ZZZ," in which we return to the Garden of Eden, a coda probably best described with the vernacular use of the word epic, as in:It's epic!For curious and mature readers, this poem alone is worth the price of the entire collection, accomplishing what all good writing-poetic or otherwise-does: It evokes something new within us, something we never thought to think before.
"This is not a Wordsworthian poet out in the moor thinking about himself," David Baker, the poetry editor atThe Kenyon Review, says when asked to situate Majmudar's work within the broader poetry landscape. "This is not an experimental poet, a post-structuralist or a post-modernist. He is a social poet, a poet of people, who writes about families, culture and national identity," says Baker, an accomplished poet himself and a professor of English and creative writing at Denison University. "He's got this wonderful capability with all these different forms. His thinking through of a rhetoric, or an argument, or an exposition, makes him really capable at fairly traditional and difficult forms."
Scottish poet and editor Gerry Cambridge, who first published Majmudar's unsolicited submissions in his Scotland-based literary journalThe Dark Horsein 2007, described Majmudar's work via email as "remarkable not only for itsdexterity of technique but forits filtering of contemporary themes-often painful ones such as terrorism or the Iraq War-through his ownsensibility as a modern Indian man living in America."
After first quoting W.H. Auden, who once wrote that in the company ofscientists he "felt like a shabbycurate" who had "strayed by mistake into a drawingroom full of dukes," Cambridge praised Majmudar for crossing the traditional divide between art and science and bringing"a new and unpredictable mixto contemporary English-language poetry, yet in a highly communicable register." One of the first poems Cambridge published by Majmudar was "Elegy for Professor Liviu Librescu," a moving, yet unsentimental poem that takes us inside a university classroom during the Virginia Tech massacre and tells the real-life and heroic story of Librescu, a 76-year-old professor and Holocaust survivor, who barricaded his classroom door long enough for his students to escape safely from an upper-story window:
Everyone else was startled. Only he turned to the sounds
With a nod of familiarity. Found me here, too.
Far away wasn't far enough. His chalk clicked on the tiny tray.
The poem ends:
How fortunate I am to stand here,
To put an old man between you and this.
While his students dropped from the windows
Like birds leaving a nest
the door jerked under him five times
with whatever was out there.
Blessing them all with wings,
He bid them Hurry, bid them Fly,
his eyes lifting from his emptied classroom
to the open windows, and the open sky.
Majmudar is wiry and restless; when he talks, his face is emotive, as if it might break into a smile at any moment. He is not reserved or static during readings, but sways with the kinetic lilt of a dancer and leaves the audience with the impression that reading poetry in public is the most marvelous thing in the world to do, making the epigraph to his latest collection, "Dothead," a quote from Dr. Seuss' "The Cat in the Hat," fitting:
It is fun to have fun
But you have to know how.
Majmudar admits his preference is for "obscure and hermetic" poetry without popular appeal. He says poetry "performs best on the page when it is something very unique, very eccentric or, you know, as my wife recently described our children-quirky and free-form. It has to have that kind of weirdness to it, and that weirdness doesn't travel well. In its best form, page poetry is sort of indie, but what I'm trying to do is take what is basically an indie art form and make it hard Hollywood, or some Hollywood equivalent, and that's what the laureateship should do."
Born in 1979, Majmudar grew up as the only Indian-American kid in suburban Cleveland, graduating from Mayfield High School. His parents were physicians, trained as internists, and though they still live in Ohio, they spend half the year in India. In the acknowledgements to his second novel, "The Abundance," Majmudar discloses the force behind his novel writing: "I write my novels out of fears I cannot overcome in any other way." His first novel, "Partitions," was fear for his twin sons, "the fear of some danger from which I would not be able to protect them." The second novel, "The Abundance," was out of the "fear of losing a parent."
Majmudar is not considered by critics, or himself, as an autobiographical writer, but in a 2013 essay inThe New York Times, "Am I an Immigrant Writer?" he wrestled publicly with his biography: "For a minority writer, the strangeness that attracted a reader's curiosity in the first place is also a strangeness that must be overcome." But by the end of the essay, Majmudar thinks himself out of such a bind: "This is all part of the larger paradox of fiction, where the characters must be specific enough to be anyone. In the end, the packaging may simply serve as an introduction. The true meeting takes place when the book opens, and a stranger reads about-and comprehends-a stranger."
In his poetry, Majmudar, who is a devout Hindu, sometimes conjures the internal lives of other minorities. In "The Star-Spangled Turban," a turbaned man, "tops on any watch list," chooses Old Glory to place on his head, as reverently as "any U.S.M.C. honor guard triangle on a coffin." And in "T.S.A." the poem's voice is of a man for whom "the customary strip is never enough" in the airport security line.
During a March public forum with Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in Columbus, Majmudar expressed his fears of the nativist rhetoric of Donald Trump's primary campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. "I'm a son of immigrants. My parents, both citizens now, have done very well in this great country, and so have I," he told the candidates. "But as a 1 percent ethnic and religious minority, witnessing the rise of Donald Trump, for the first time my family has started feeling a little uncomfortable here, and frankly, a little bit scared." He then asked both Clinton and Sanders to detail an anti-Trump game plan. Joe Klein ofTimemagazine called it "the most important question of the 2016 presidential campaign."
In his poetry, Majmudar sometimes explores issues of identity and assimilation among immigrant communities, including the title poem of "Dothead." At a September 2014 literary event in St. Louis, Majmudar prefaced his reading of the poem by explaining the word's origin-its use as "a slur against Hindus in India back in the day. Kind of like with the N-word, where you take it back and make it yours, and by that way diffuse it." Then he laid out what the poem would do-get them from one place (a suburban high school cafeteria) to the other (an image of Shiva Nataraja, the Hindu god of destruction, dancing the destruction of the universe in a sphere of fire). This skilled expansiveness, this unexpectedness, makes reading and listening to Majmudar such a thrill.
In "Canto XI from American Inferno"-a poem written in the style of Dante, which appeared in his collection, "Heaven and Earth"-an unrepentant Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay, digs the graves of the dead of Hiroshima for an eternity. In "The Cherry Blossoms at Walter Reed," Majmudar considers the terrible human cost of war, opening with a startling line, "Begin where flesh gives way to phantom pain" and eventually takes the reader to "where the drawer closes on the Purple Heart."
Majmudar's insatiable mind constantly casts itself from explorations of our present human condition back to myths and questions as old and persistent as poetry itself. In doing so, Majmudar creates room enough for his restless imagination, allowing it to float off the page as the irrepressible force it is.
This poetic vision reflects, in part, the unwieldy and wide-ranging reading life of the writer. Majmudar explains the variance in his work by offering an inventory of the books piled next to the reading chair in his office: a book about the partition of India; an American fantasy book; a Russian short story writer and contemporary of Tolstoy; a book on espionage; a Jules Verne novel; a British satire; a book of early 20th century Russian fiction; and a 1532 Italian chivalric epic. "And that's just the stuff I randomly got from the library," he adds. "I do that because that's how I really think and live literarily."
Poetry and Public Life
Ohio's first poet laureate, when asked to detail his vision for the two-year appointment, starts by talking about rap-rap as a form of poetry hybridized to music, dancing, fashion and scantily-clad women. "None of us wants to read a Jay Z rap or read a Kendrick Lamar rap," Amit Majmudar says. "We want them to perform it. We want to see the video. That's why they don't publish their rap in book form. They publish tracks. That's how it is disseminated and that's how it's experienced."
This admiration for the performative potential of poetry reflects Majmudar's ambitions as laureate. He wants to find new ways for the neglected literary genre to enter the culture at large. "Historically, Homer didn't used to be read, it used to be something that was performed with lyres, and there were various rhapsodies," Majmudar says. "They would go around the countryside and perform Homer; they'd sing Homer. Shakespeare is basically poetry hybridized to drama, costume and music. The only way I'm going to be able to get poetry back into the cultural life of the community is to hybridize it to something else."
Majmudar was named to the honorary unpaid position in December 2015 by Gov. John Kasich, after a nomination and vetting of potential candidates by the Ohio Arts Council. During his two-year appointment, Majmudar will spearhead the Ohio Future Laureates Program. Fifteen underprivileged school districts will nominate a student with exceptional promise in poetry. Majmudar will then pair each student poet with an established poet for mentorship and the development and revision of a single poem for publication. He has arranged for editors atThe Kenyon Review, where he is a frequent contributor, to review the final poems for publication in the respected Ohio-based literary journal.
Another project, slated for 2017, will pair Ohio-based poets and musicians, who will adopt a text to music, and may include public performances, possibly even a CD recording.Majmudar's unorthodox vision for the laureateship has its debut on stage this month, with his free public performance of a new poem, "Metamorphoses." As a reinterpretation of the Latin narrative by first century Roman poet Ovid, Majmudar, who is Hindu, transports Hindu and Indian mythology, including Shiva and Vishnu, into what's long been considered the most influential literary work in Western civilization. Majmudar's reading of his work-scheduled for May 13 at the Abbey Theater in Dublin-will be accompanied by seven local dancers, including his wife, Ami Buch Majmudar, a dancer of Bharatanatyam, a form of Indian classical dance. He says the poem ends with dramatic flair: "The God of Love gets incinerated by the ascetic God Shiva, who opens his third eye and incinerates him. And after the God of Love gets burned away, Shiva dances a ballet because he has become bodiless."