An Interview with Vivek Narayanan

by Arianne Elena Payne

An Interview with Vivek Narayanan

George Mason University proudly introduces Vivek Narayanan as one of the newest members of our Creative Writing faculty. Join us in extending a warm welcome!

Vivek Narayanan was born in India, raised in Zambia, and is a multi-disciplinary creative scholar. Prior to his career here, he taught history, anthropology, and creative writing in many places including the University of Kwazulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa and the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. Narayanan is the author of the poetry collections Universal Beach and Life and Times of Mr S, and his work has appeared in Agni, Granta, The Village Voice, Harvard Review, Caravan, and elsewhere, with poems in anthologies such as The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, The Oxford Poets Anthology 2013, 60 Indian Poets, and Language for a New Century.

Narayanan has been a Fellow at Radcliffe Institute at Harvard and, most recently, a Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library, where he worked on his forthcoming book of poems, After—building on Valmiki’s epic poem Ramayana and initiating a transformative conversation across time.

We are delighted to have such an accomplished writer, thinker, translator, and teacher join our program—and appreciate him answering a few questions here.

You've been at Mason for about two years already. How has the MFA program and university influenced or changed your approach to your work? 

I love being in Northern Virginia and D.C. because of its internationalism and many immigrant populations. Naturally, you see that reflected at Mason, too. The Cheuse International Writers Center—where you might go to hear famous poets from Palestine or Ethiopia or Norway—is a real gift to have on campus and in dialogue with the MFA. There’s also the sense of being at a university in the midst of massive transformation—that’s very exciting.  

This is the first year that I’ve really had a chance to teach and spend time with Mason’s MFA poets. I feel tremendously excited by what everyone’s doing and the kind of minds that have been brought together; I look forward to both teaching and learning. In particular, I love that at Mason there is no “house style”: each poet in the program writes differently, exploring the vast possibilities of contemporary poetry and attending to their own unique inner music. It completely destroys the myth that MFA programs iron you out or force you to write in a single style. 

What value do you see yourself adding to our creative writing program?

Firstly, I’m interested in the conversations that poetry can have with other disciplines and other ways of knowing. Next semester I’m teaching a craft seminar on “research-based poetries,” which will look at different kinds of “found” and documentary poetries, thinking about the ways that poets in particular use and have done research, but also at the limitations of research in artistic practice, the kinds of ethical questions the writer has to negotiate, and the ground on which the poetic imagination has to step up and push aside the research to give voice to silences and erasures.

Secondly, American poetry can sometimes be very inward-looking, even if a few of America’s most important poets—think of Langston Hughes or Allen Ginsberg—have been deeply committed internationalists/transnationalists. I hope I can help bring a greater awareness of world poetry to our contemporary moment and to Mason, meaning the poetry being written in English everywhere by just about anyone who wants to, those “foreign” poetries we reach for through the creative art of translation and finally translingual or multilingual poetry. I’d like us to reach again for a sense of poetry that has places but no borders.

Most of all I’d just like to contribute in any way I can to the deepening and diversification of poetry, within and without. 

What most interests you about the direction that poetry is headed in? 

I’m not a soothsayer, so I won’t bother to opine on which direction poetry is headed in! I hope it’s in the direction of multiplicity and variety and not the next “school” or “cool” period style. For me, true poetry exists beyond history, as a kind of portal through which voices from all across time can meet and connect with each other.

What are you excited about in this next step of your career? 

After, a big book of poems that took me a decade to write, comes out next year. And now I’m at work on an opera commissioned by a fantastic company in D.C. called In Series. I’m so looking forward to collaborating on that with the artistic director, the composer, the choreographer and performers. Poetry is so often a solitary exercise, it’s always exciting and fun to work with people who will take it and transform it into something else. 


Arianne Elena Payne is a poet and first-year MFA student from Chicago.