Interview with Vidyan Ravinthiran

Could you reflect on your relationship to the telephone, in the past or in the present, and say something about how this might have informed your poem?

I’ve realised something about my extended family – part of the Tamil diaspora which fled Sri Lanka, and settled all over the globe – we act as if to video call each other is the same as actually being together. My cousin and uncle, for instance, will leave the camera running, not really talking to each other but simply as a kind of window or portal connecting a sitting room in Nova Scotia with another in Colombo.

My family has just moved to the US, and we’re trying to make this magic trick work for us, but it’s difficult when I video call my parents, and the screen freezes, reminding us of the distance between us. The immensity of the Atlantic. And our son, Frank, who is eight months old, doesn’t really understand. His grandparents can talk to him but he doesn’t respond to them as he would face-to-face. Which is hard on everybody.

How did you go about producing the work for this project? Were there any materials, anecdotal, literary or otherwise, that proved generative for you?

‘Not everyone who flies is a tourist’ is a quip borrowed from a poet I admire, Nasser Hussain, who has published a book of verse built out of three-letter airport codes. The group of young reviewers centred around the Ledbury Emerging Critics program had an intense conversation about the unexamined whiteness of much climate change discourse. It’s a serious issue but I don’t think flight shaming is the answer, as least not for those of us whose families have been spread all over the world by the aftereffects of colonialism. And are we not meant to fly to other countries, and meet in them people different to us, other cultures, some of them turned into tourist economies by global events which have benefitted our own nations in the past? We need to attend to the environmental crisis but in a historically informed way.

How much was the recording of the poem, and the format(s) through which the poem will be reproduced (i.e. a public phone booth and mobile app), a consideration in the composition?

The poem has a spoken, impatient feel, it’s to do with conversations, and disagreements, ruptures within conversations, and I think that has emerged from the parameters of the project.

Do you have any thoughts on how the project might have affected the way that you think about the relationship between poetry and telephony, or between writing and technology more broadly?

It’s the second time I’ve recorded myself reciting a poem. I’m one of those people who hears their own voice and cringes! But, listening to the recording this time, the fuzziness and acoustic furriness of it, I began to think about technological distortions as relating to those forces which prevent us from really hearing what other people have to say.

May 2020