Midwestern Gothic staffer Kristina Perkins talked with author Amit Majmudar about his collection Dothead, the connection between medicine and writing, the purpose of form in poetry and more.
Kristina Perkins: What is your connection to the Midwest?
Amit Majmudar: I have lived here most of my life. I was born in New York City but we moved to West Union, a small town in Ohio, when I was a few months old. After that, we went north to Cleveland, where my first memories take place. I have also lived in Rootstown, Ohio, and Canton, Ohio, before moving to Columbus. For a brief period (one and a half years) we moved to India, where I did 2nd and 3rd grade.
KP: You grew up near Cleveland, Ohio, but spent time with your parents in India. How does your sense of place — and, with it, your sense of belonging — inform your writing?
AM: Sometimes I don’t know if I really have a sense of place anymore. Or rather my only real place is among books, in a library. Wherever I go, I feel like I exist in a bubble. Last December, I visited India again, and every care was taken to insulate me from the environment. Air conditioning, cars, fancy hotels, plane trips even within India to avoid the rails. So the experience was very much designed to avoid the squalor and heat and poverty and life as Indians actually live it. And truth be told, I kind of preferred it that way.
Here in America, yes, I feel at home in suburban Ohio, but that may be because it impinges so little on my inner life. I have a circuit between work and home (and the internal world, of language and imagination) that could be transplanted anywhere that has a stable civil society, paved roads, decent neighborhoods, and no hurricanes….
Or so I tell myself. As soon as you toss me among lit-clique Manhattanites or frenetically materialist SoCal types, suddenly I realize I am a Midwesterner through and through. There have been times I find my voice taking on a drawl in such company, and I start engaging all sortsa contractions and idiomatic expressions.
KP: A prolific and versatile writer, you’ve published numerous novels, poetry collections, literary essays, and nonfiction works. How do you navigate such an extensive repertoire? Do you find yourself gravitating toward one mode at a time, or do you work with them all simultaneously? What compels you to explore new genres?
AM: I don’t overthink this issue. That is probably the key. I simply think there is an optimized form for any given literary effect. Some of these are obvious, like go to prose fiction for an extended story, or go to poetry for a brief impressionistic piece, or go to essayistic prose to make a point you already have in your head. Then within this, there are endless decisions that can be made, endless decisions of strategy. I mess around with all forms simultaneously, though sometimes I hunker down on one to gain momentum.
KP: You practice diagnostic radiology full-time near your home in Dublin, Ohio. Your newest collection, Dothead, in part explores the relationship between your professions, including poems titled “Radiology,” “Stem Cells,” and “Neuroscience.” While you’ve previously said that you see medicine and writing as connected through their pursuit of pattern, how do you feel these fields influence one another — if at all?
AM: Probably the science influences the writing at the level of meaning. That is, I don’t do well writing (or reading) poetry that doesn’t mean anything. As soon as I get the sense that a writer isn’t trying to communicate with me, that the language is simply there to be admired for its own sake, the poem becomes a mere amuse-bouche, empty verbal calories, and my interest shuts down. I think it’s best that my poetry and fiction don’t influence radiology reports too much. Malpractice lawyers make unforgiving literary critics. Too much use of poetic license can get your medical one revoked.
KP: The poems in Dothead are as diverse in form as they are in subject matter — your collection includes prose poems, free-verse poems, rhyming poems, and a shaped poem. What, for you, is the purpose of form in poetry? How does the form you choose contribute to the meaning of that poem?
AM: I write a lot of prose, so for me, form sets poetry apart from prose. (Though as you mention, I transgress this principle at will; the longest poem in Dothead is a prose poem.) Increasingly I think the ideal poem is one that can be reprinted as prose, and the reader will know exactly where the linebreaks go, because the form and music are so profoundly and structurally inextricable. That IS its nature. This isn’t true of much great poetry, I know. (Shakespeare’s earliest printers sometimes mixed up and printed his verse passages as prose in early folios of Lear and Hamlet). But it’s a nice guiding principle. A lot of times, forms say things implicitly, like the volta of a sonnet, which says, “but then again…” Or a form can add sharpness and point, like with the heroic couplet. Or stripping your verse of punctuation can make things look/feel a little urgently slapdash or breathless. I play a great deal with such effects.
KP: You’re currently in the middle of a two-year term as the first Poet Laureate of Ohio. How has this job differed from your previous professional experiences with writing? What has surprised you the most about the job?
AM: I don’t have any prior professional experiences with writing. What has surprised me most is the level of interest from the press about this post. I would have never imagined that Ohio naming a state poet laureate would be, from a newspaper or magazine’s perspective, “a story.” But it turned out to be that way.
KP: Given your versatility as a writer, do you have a favorite writing form — or, perhaps, genre — to read? How have the books you’ve read influenced what and how you write?
AM: I prefer to read poetry and nonfiction. For some reason fiction bores me when I sit and read it (in most cases), so I mostly audiobook that. I like to audiobook enormous nonfiction tomes I’d never get through on my own. Also Tolstoy; I’ve never actually READ Anna Karenina or War and Peace, only audiobooked them. That holds true of much of the world’s greatest (and longest) fiction; some day I’ll try to audiobook Infinite Jest, so I can hang with the cool kids. I never audiobook poetry.
KP: What’s next for you?
AM: I’m superstitious! I don’t want to jinx myself because I have some large-scale stuff in the offing…You will, hopefully, see for yourself over the next few years!
Amit Majmudar is Ohio’s first Poet Laureate. His most recent collection is Dothead (Knopf, 2016).