The former Ohio Poet Laureate has a new book of poems, titled “What He Did in Solitary.” He spoke with us about writing, his love for Ohio, the relationship between humor and pain, and why he's feeling Zen about the upcoming election.
When Gov. John Kasich appointed Ohio’s first Poet Laureate in 2015, it came as a surprise to some that the recipient had a day job. The Westerville resident, then 35, now 41, is a nuclear diagnostic radiologist. He has also published two novels, three collections of poetry, numerous essays and, in 2018, a critically acclaimed verse translation of the Bhagavad Gita.
How does he accomplish so much? “I just don’t do things,” Majmudar told writer Mya Frazier when she profiled him for Columbus Monthly during his stint as poet laureate. “I go to work, work out, hang out with my family, read and write, eat and sleep.”
And he doesn’t sleep much, apparently. When I sent him the following questions by email one evening last week, his answers came back just a few hours later—at 3:45 in the morning.
But while Majmudar may be a homebody, his work is intensely engaged with the world today. His new book of poems, “What He Did in Solitary” (Alfred A. Knopf: August, 2020), is not about the pandemic lockdown despite the suggestive title, but the collection nevertheless feels very current. Its 81 poems explore topics that range from police brutality to so-called “invasive” species (“China virus,” anyone?) to the opioid-ravaged Chillicothe landscape. They also include memories of Cleveland (where he grew up), reflections on Air Jordans and Elmer’s glue, a series relating love to neurological ailments and a romantic poem about folding laundry, with references to Tom Sawyer, Van Gogh and Argus the cyclops. Is he the possessor of a restless mind or a graphomaniac (his word)? You decide.
I know the title poem of your new book was first published in 2019, well before we’d heard of the coronavirus. And yet, it’s hard not to read the poems in this collection with 2020 in mind. Do you read your own work differently in light of all that has happened in our country in the past seven months?
The entire book was in its final form well before the pandemic hit, since books have a long lead time between acceptance and publication date. The idea of "solitary" in particular took on a whole new meaning in the age of quarantine, but there's even a poem called "Virus" in there. (My 2016 collection, “Dothead,” had a poem called "Pandemic Ghazal" in it.) There are definitely some spooky coincidences there to see for someone reading the book in late 2020—but maybe it's really just that some problems that surge suddenly to our consciousness, like race, have always been there, and some problems that seem like they've blindsided us, like the pandemic, were always known to be threats.
In the first poem in the book, a sort of epigraph, you write, “When the I in me gets up and leaves,/who’s writing this?” Many poems in this collection trace your own life, but in some you seem to channel other people. Does your “I” get up and leave when you write a poem?
Absolutely! Even the poems that seem to trace my own life often aren't actually doing that. If it's a poem, there's a good chance the "I" is not me, or at best a version of me that doesn't track exactly to me. In my poetry, I can be more interesting than I am in real life!
I was moved by the poem “How Do I Say That, Where is That From” in which you write that you want “a white name.” “White as a wall/ On which the art/ Is noticed from/ The very start.” Has it been your experience that readers’ and critics’ curiosity about your ethnicity detracts from their ability to recognize your art?
I'm pretty level-headed about this, I think, outside the frame of that specific poem. I've actually heard writers complain in either direction—there may well be no pleasing us! Either people focus on ethnicity, and it feels like they're not really seeing us as unique humans, just representatives of a group; or people don't focus on our ethnicity, and we feel like that aspect is getting erased or ignored. That poem expressed a transient emotion, a transient irritation. My baseline is to be extremely forgiving of people on that subject! I'm just thrilled to be read.
You express great love for your native Ohio in these poems—but your Ohio is not a beautiful or happy place. I’m thinking, in particular, of the poems “Chillicothe Apostrophe” and “Owed to Cleveland,” both of which are loving but very bleak. What is it about this place that grips you so?
This is a great place to raise a family. It's bleak in places, true—but there's far more beauty. Above all, this is home. I've lived in Ohio my whole life! I don't feel at home anywhere else.
This is quite a long book of poetry. I found if I read too many at once I'd feel as if I'd eaten too much rich food and should go slower. As the writer, how do you envision people consuming a book of your poems?
It's divided into sections that are pretty bite-sized. A couple of sections at a sitting would probably be enough. I realized after the fact that the book is very long. I collect in book form only the poems that have gotten through into print or online publication—it’s this long even after I excluded a few dozen additional candidates. I must be some kind of graphomaniac.
While many of your poems are dark, they also are witty and even funny. Can you talk about the role of humor in communicating pain?
Humor is a sign the pain is real because it means the person is actively trying to do something to mitigate what they feel. Listen to the pain in Dave Chappelle's standup, for example. Puns and wordplay and rhyme can signal the same thing. You delight yourself with formal tricks because God, it hurts so bad, you need to make this hell bearable somehow.
While researching your story, I came across a 2016 Newsweek essay by Joe Klein in which he interviewed you after you pointedly questioned Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton during a public forum about how they planned to defeat Trump. Klein wasn’t satisfied with their answers, and neither were you. Are you more hopeful this time around?
2016 taught me how to handle 2020. It taught me not to take any outcome for granted, not to believe the polls and pundits, not to hope—but also not to catastrophize. I am a hundred times more Zen about this election, even though I suspect the final result may be delayed and/or disputed, and that my fellow Americans may well sack a few of their own cities before this cursed year leaves us and the next cursed year shows up to take its place.