Vandana Khanna has published two full-length collections of poetry, Train to Agra and Afternoon Masala, as well as her most recent chapbook The Goddess Monologues. Among her achievements are notable features in the New England Review, The Missouri Review, 32 Poems, Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workspace, Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation, and Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry, as well as the Crab Orchard Review First Book Prize, The Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize, the Diode Editions Chapbook Competition, the Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize, and five Pushcart Prize nominations.
She has taught English and creative writing at Indiana University, Pitzer College, Whittier College and the University of Southern California, among other colleges, and is the co-poetry editor of the Los Angeles Review. Vandana and I conducted the following interview in person in early December 2018. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Amanda Lopez: We’ll start with this: When and what experiences urged you to begin writing poetry?
Vandana Khanna: I first started writing when I was really young, like I was nine years old and I tried to write my first novel. But I came to poetry more in middle school and high school. It seemed understandable why I would be gravitating toward something I thought was really intense, which was poetry. So, I pretty much started writing poetry in middle school and high school. And then from there, I was able to go into my undergrad program and work with the most amazing teachers ever. From my undergrad on, I took a poetry workshop every semester I was able to, which was all of them. I was really lucky because my first teachers were Rita Dove, Charles Wright, and Greg Ore, who were these like luminaries in the poetry world. I feel like I learned from the best early on. I was pretty lucky in that way.
AL: Do you think that their work has remained influential to your work, or has it shifted?
VK: Absolutely. I definitely learned so much from them and I feel especially with Rita Dove and somewhat with Greg Ore. I was really so enamored with their poetry it really influenced the way I wrote and what I still do in my poetry, and try to remember what I learned from them at such an early age.
AL: How did growing up as an immigrant influence The Goddess Monologues?
VK: Well, my first two books were really heavily about the immigrant experience. Primarily because it was such a shaping factor in my own life. With The Goddess Monologues, it just hit me that I am an immigrant, I’m raising biracial children, who are Americans, but I wanted them to still be connected to my culture and what I grew up with.
One of the things I did was read this picture book to my son, who’s now way older,—laughs—but when he was little, it was really important that if we read picture books they would be about Hindu mythology. Even while reading those picture books, I’d have to edit out some of the story—and this was really before he could even read, he was like three or four—because mythology, whether it’s Hindu mythology or Greek mythology or whatever, it’s pretty violent. Gods and goddesses are at war and they get kidnapped and their heads get cut off. While I was reading them, I’d have to edit them on the go. But it did strike me that they were all really about the gods. I was like huh, these goddesses have just become devices for these men, but in actual Hinduism, the goddesses get prayed to a lot; they become the god or goddess of the household, and you pray to a particular goddess. In actual practice, the goddess is beloved and prayed to and worshipped, but I also wanted to think about how they were being worshipped because they followed certain rules of conduct. I was kind of thinking Well what happens when you really strip away at it? You have these goddesses, young girls, or young women, and maybe they didn’t choose to be a goddess, and it was just their “destiny” or whatever. I thought about how it would feel to be a young woman on the precipice of being great or Holy, and what does that even mean, in very human terms. And it plays into the immigrant thing with the themes of my childhood being a good Indian girl and following certain rules.
Ultimately as a writer, you do have to be true to yourself. There are going to be editors and people who you won’t be able to please. There will be people who will be like Why don’t you write more about your ethnicity and growing up? and We don’t see enough of that in your writing.
These poems are also somewhat a reaction to growing up in that culture, which I think a lot of people can probably relate to. It doesn’t have to do with one particular culture. It’s the culture of our household or your family and what’s expected of you as a young woman.
AL: That kind of takes us to my next question: I’m a third generation Mexican-American, and although my grandma planted strong roots in our Mexican heritage, sometimes I have trouble navigating my work as a biracial writer when I’m so far removed from my immigrant ancestors. What advice would you give to a bi-cultural writer?
VK: It’s gonna sound a little hokey, but you have to stay true to who you are and the complexities of who you are. One of the things I really remember from growing up was that is it was really hard to navigate the space I found myself in, partly because there were only a handful of people I felt like who were having the same experience as I was. But as we move forward as a world and as people who intermarry more and have more multicultural children or multiracial children, there will be more people who will experience that complexity and multiplicity.
There are lots more role models now than when I was growing up. Like I wasn’t taught much about Asian-American writers until I went to college and I took one of these writing classes. Then I was finally reading not only Asian-American poets but Indian-American poets, you know, that I never read growing up. Ultimately as a writer, you do have to be true to yourself. There are going to be editors and people who you won’t be able to please. There will be people who will be like Why don’t you write more about your ethnicity and growing up? and We don’t see enough of that in your writing. And then there will be people like, Why are you always writing about x, y, and z? I don’t think you can please everybody; you should just please yourself as a writer, no matter what you write about or how you choose to write it.
But I think we’re in a space now that as we have more and more writers of color becoming editors and positioning themselves in situations that allow them to have more power, they can assess this work based on the complexities of who they are and what they’re bringing to the table, and not like I don’t understand that word or Gosh, that looks like an Indian word or a Spanish word, and I don’t feel like looking it up. I’m hopeful of writers of color being editors or judges of contests, that they bring all that experience with them. And that’s a good thing. Not to say that the status quo hasn’t helped certain people, but in general, if you have a diverse population, it should be reflected in leadership positions. And once you have that, it allows writers to just be writers, and not to have to carry all the other labels on them, and let society stew.
AL: How would you describe your creative process or writing ritual?
VK: It has stayed consistent for a number of years. Life kinda gets in the way sometimes. For me, when I’m not teaching or editing a lot, I try to write every day if I can. And if I can’t, if there are other work obligations or life obligations, I try to write once a week. I feel like if I don’t stay in touch with that part of myself on an almost constant basis, I’m a terrible person to be with. I’m a terrible friend, a terrible teacher. I’m terrible at all those other things because being a writer is so much a part of my identity at this point that if I don’t do it, I feel like I’m a sham.
I try to write if given the chance, every day. If not, I kinda look at my week and say On Friday I have like two or three hours, I’m just gonna dedicate it to writing. For me, it takes a little while to disconnect from the world. I have to incorporate that disconnect time into my writing time as well. So I try to write every day.
I want these girls and young women to be complex, I do want them to fail. I want people to acknowledge their pain without considering them to be victims.
I primarily have to write in my house because I get distracted very easily. I can’t write in a cafe—It sounds so romantic, like how you see people and you think, Ooh, I wish I could do that with my latte, but I just get too distracted. I like my house, I like to have a computer and a printer. I used to hand print everything, so I have several journals which were my first and second books. With the third book, I was composing on the laptop, which I’ve never really done. I used to compose by hand, then go to the laptop, then print that out and do this whole thing. Now I’m just composing on the laptop, and I like it.
I think once you’ve established a process and another emerges, you kind of just have to go with it, you have to do it. Because I will do anything to trick my mind into writing. I do have to write at home, partly because of the quiet, and partly because I tend to wear really ugly, comfortable clothing and I don’t think people want to see that in the world.—laughs—So for me, it’s quiet, comfortable, and then I usually start by reading something. I read a lot of contemporary poetry, so I will go to any lit mag’s website and start reading a current issue online and see what sparks me. Or if I’m on social media and one of my writer friends posts like Oh, I just got published in this literary magazine, here’s my poem I often will save those posts of theirs and I’ll sit down and read the poems in hopes that something will inspire me. I have to write a lot and often to feel I have even a little bit of material I like.
AL: Do you sense there’s a difference between writing manually and typing?
VK: I have to say because I made a shift between the second and third book, that the first two are very narrative, and this third book is narrative but it’s slightly more lyric than those. What I tried to do with this one is replace straight narrative with mood. It kind of worked really well, because in my mind the book was, rather than individual poems, it was like this big book of mood—laughs—It was easy to put it right on the computer, because even if I just came up with one line here or there, I could go back to that one line and connect it up to another one-liner. And that’s kind of how I built some of those poems because I was more concerned with that idea of mood than telling like a straight narrative of somebody, or one of the goddesses. I was more concerned with their emotions. If I was in a mood myself while I was writing, sometimes there were angry poems, sometimes they were sad or melancholy. I would just sit and write those and when I went back, I would try to put those lines together that were sort of similar moods. The book turned into a sequence of poems rather than broken up into individual stories.
AL: Are there any misconceptions or things readers tend to miss while analyzing The Goddess Monologues?
VK: I think some things people are going to miss because they’re not gonna look up, like these goddesses. And I’m okay with that because, again, what I want to get across is the feel of it, the feel of these women and these girls. And whether or not they understand the full scope of a particular story, I don’t mind that. In fact, I encourage people to just read the book. I have a whole notes section in the back, knowing some people will want to look at the notes and some people won’t. The poems should just stand on their own. You can just pick it up and get some sense of what’s going on, and what the implications are. But I don’t know, I’d have to see what people really feel about it. A lot of my titles have “girl” in it; when people come to a page and they see a title like that I wonder what their assumptions are, what they bring with them when they see “girl.” I’m not sure how people receive that, but I am sure it’s interesting.
AL: That is interesting! What is your intention behind “girl?”
VK: So much of our world ignores girls, and ignores their power and their pain. Or the flipside is true; we say women are all powerful and they’re not allowed to falter and they’re not allowed to fail. We’ve reversed this pendulum, which can be a good thing, but there’s also then this ultimate pressure of like, what if you fail? So I have poems in the book where the goddesses do fail. They fail these tasks, these certain moments, tests. I want these girls and young women to be complex; I do want them to fail. I want people to acknowledge their pain without considering them to be victims. Women are portrayed as all-powerful or victims, nothing in between. There’s no transition between the two modes. I hope these poems show that women and girls and even goddesses are complex and they do fail and sometimes they do get hurt but that they can move beyond that hurt—or they hold onto that hurt and it fuels them.
I do feel like a lot of my work questions assumptions we make about religion, about being holy, about gods, all of it, that expectation of what a holy person or what holy women should be like.
AL: And that complexity shows up in your titles like “The Goddess Shows Up Late to the End-of-the-World Party” which is so humanizing for these women, these goddesses.
Do you see writing poetry as a spiritual practice? A political act? Can it be both?
VK: I think they’re both in the sense that from a very early age when I first started writing poetry, and my first couple of books, I really am preoccupied with this idea of God and religion and how women navigate that space. Especially because I grew up Hindu, but I also went to Catholic school, so a lot of my early work is grappling with this idea of being between two religions. And now with the goddesses, I can’t seem to get rid of that idea. But I do feel like a lot of my work questions assumptions we make about religion, about being holy, about gods, all of it, that expectation of what a holy person or what holy women should be like.
I also think it’s political in the sense of just really always being interested in writing about girls and women, and even by putting “girl” in the title, by having people focus on it is a political act in its own way. I don’t think you can separate that. I do think sometimes my poems are probably subtly political and sometimes they’re more overtly political. But I don’t think you can separate that.
AL: Concerning your process again, do you ever throw poems away? Or do you like to keep the rejects?
VK: I have written whole poems, obviously, a lot of them that I don’t ever end up doing anything with. They don’t get published or get put in a book, and they’re just sort of there. And that’s okay because I needed to write those poems to get to the poem that I really wanted to write. I don’t throw them away, but they’re probably tucked in a file somewhere on the computer. But for sure there are, in every collection or book, there are some poems that never make it into that book because it’s a process. When I’m first writing, I don’t really want to assess right away if what I’m writing is worthwhile, because it’s important to just sit and write first, before bringing in the critic. If you sit down with the critic on your shoulder already, you’re never gonna write. After some distance, I assess what I have.
AL: The Goddess Monologues take place in an ethereal setting; if you had to place where the majority of the poems take place in the physical world, what kind of landscape would your characters, the goddesses, reside in?
VK: I think they would reside where we leave them, on the edge of a forest. That’s where I see them. And I think that’s where they will always go back to.
AL: Finally, if there’s one or a couple of things you want your work to be remembered for, what would you choose it/them to be?
VK: Oh my gosh… Well, I think I do pay a lot of attention to language and imagery. When I first learned to write, that’s what my teachers imparted to me, that people might not remember the story of your poem, or remember the narrative or that stuff, but you want them to leave reading your work with one image or one moment in that poem. So that’s what I hope, that people will at least leave thinking about that one moment, whatever it is for them. It’ll hopefully be different for all different readers, but that’s what I hope.
AL: Thank you so much for talking with me!
VK: Sure! Thank you!