Found poetry

For Srikanth Reddy, writing a poem is as much an act of excavation as creation.

By Lydialyle Gibson

Photography by Dan Dry

Photo: Srikanth Reddy Srikanth Reddy ´┐Żerased´┐Ż his way to his book-length poem, Voyager.

Not long after his first book of poems came out in 2004 and a bad case of writer’s block came on, Srikanth Reddy picked up the political memoirs of Kurt Waldheim—international statesman and possible accomplice to Nazi war crimes—and started crossing out words. He was looking for a poem. “As a teacher,” says Reddy, an assistant professor of English, “oftentimes I find a poem inside a student’s draft, inside what they thought was their poem, by editing out the loose language and extra words—basically by crossing stuff out.”

It occurred to him that the same technique might work in other texts, “that I could find a poem in any book.” Reddy turned to In the Eye of the Storm, the English-language version of Waldheim’s 1985 memoir, published in advance of Austria’s national elections the following year. The book sparked controversy when documents came to light revealing what Waldheim had omitted: he had been an interpreter and intelligence officer with a Nazi stormtrooper unit that executed Yugoslav partisans and civilians and deported thousands of Greek Jews to Auschwitz. An international committee investigated, concluding that although Waldheim must have known about the atrocities, no evidence tied him personally to them. In 1986 he was elected Austria’s president.

It wasn’t only the controversy that sent Reddy to the bookshelf in search of Waldheim; it was a longtime fascination with the Voyager spacecraft. During the 1970s—happier days for Waldheim and the international community—the Austrian diplomat spent nine years as UN secretary-general. In 1977, when NASA launched the two unmanned Voyager probes into space, each carrying a “golden record” of Earth’s sights and sounds, Waldheim included a message: “We step out of our solar system into the universe seeking only peace and friendship.”

“I’ve always gotten a kick out of the fact that there’s a greeting to whatever might be out there from Kurt Waldheim, somebody who’s the spokesperson for all humanity but also might be a war criminal,” Reddy says. That paradox in mind, he began slashing words, sentences, and pages from Waldheim’s book to construct a poem from what remained. “I was thinking the work of poetry might be to find beauty in something unsettling or troubling,” he says, “to sympathize with those we find it hard to sympathize with.”

The rules Reddy set for himself were strict: he couldn’t add new words or change the order of those in front of him. “Mostly,” he says, “the book is a banal memoir of diplomatic shuttling back and forth,” but it also offers surprising “literary utterances,” words like “world” and “representation,” of course, but also “orthodoxies,” “asylum,” “troubles,” “tragedy,” “history.” The work became obsessive; after making his way through the book once, Reddy set aside the verses he’d chiseled out—“a sequence of propositions about the world”—and went through it twice more, coming up with two other poems: a “Dante-like journey through an inferno” and an autobiographical account of his own experience writing the poems. Five years later, he’s putting the finishing touches on the project, which he plans to publish next year under the title Voyager. “The great thing about working with a literary technique that’s extremely difficult,” Reddy says, “is that your intentions are continually thwarted. You have to surrender to the text and find meaning in what’s there. And often the meaning you find accidentally is far more interesting and beautiful than what you originally wanted.”

Reddy, who first joined Chicago in 2003 as a visiting poet, has always been open to meandering. Last spring, after more than a decade of graduate work—including two years at the University of Iowa’s MFA writing workshop—he finished his Harvard dissertation, a study of digression in 20th-century American poetry. “It’s a topic near and dear to my heart,” Reddy says, “that took me a long time to hit upon because, ironically, I kept changing the subject of my dissertation.” Among the “rambling, unpredictable, wayward” writers he examined were Marianne Moore, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashberry—plus Walt Whitman, who was “the father,” Reddy says, “of digression in American poetry.”

From Voyager

He is fashioned in the assembly of his book.
Kurt Waldheim is a formal negotiation.
A collective music circles history.
The world is the largest picture in the world.
Of the individual, only a number remains.

Waywardness and digression figure into Reddy’s own poetry too. The speaker in his 2004 debut, Facts for Visitors (University of California), talks often of “home” and “here”: “Here was a chapel, for instance,” reads the prose poem that closes the book. “Here is a footprint filling with rain. Here might be enough.” The book’s sense of place is unmistakable, but the place the speaker inhabits seems unfixed, unfamiliar, and difficult to locate—the Boston Review called it “a region of radical unlikeness” where “inspiration and disorientation travel hand in hand.”

Reddy grew up the child of Indian immigrants in Chicago’s western suburbs and wrote most of the poems during summers he spent doing literacy work in rural Andhre Pradesh. “I was fascinated with my parents’ home,” he says. “It’s a strange experience to grow up feeling like the homemakers, the people providing a home for you, feel utterly displaced. So I wrote those poems in this strange home away from home that was never really a home in the first place.”

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Listen to Reddy read "Corruption," from Facts for Visitors.

Listen to Reddy read "Corruption II," from Facts for Visitors.