A Poet’s Life: On Making, On Being, On Surviving with Professor Jay Deshpande '12

Rebecca Pinwei Tseng
December 01, 2021
Deshpande headshot

A Poet’s Life is a series where we talk with Columbia poets about everything from living as a poet to making a living as a poet.

Here, we talk with Assistant Professor and alumnus Jay Deshpande '12 about the tools of self-expression, the joys and terrors of letting a poem enter the world, and how descriptive imagery can create a means for connection.

Listen to Jay Deshpande read "Before I Learned to Read."

Deshpande is the author of Love the Stranger (YesYes Books) and the chapbooks The Rest of the Body (YesYes Books) and The Umbrian Sonnets (PANK). His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, New England Review, AGNI, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. He is the winner of the 2015 Scotti Merrill Memorial Award and the recipient of a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Poetry, a Kundiman fellowship, and residencies at Civitella Ranieri, Saltonstall Arts Colony, and Vermont Studio Center. Deshpande holds degrees from Harvard and Columbia. He leads the Brooklyn Poets Mentorship Program and teaches in the MFA programs at Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University.

The child speaker in “Before I Learned to Read” yearns to learn reading when the coloring page feels dissatisfying because of a lack of perfection. Yet, once the speaker learns the alphabet, the dream of perfect language also falls apart. How do we reckon with having these tools of creative self-expression, yet still not being able to fully express ourselves?

Jay Deshpande [JD]: I think there are two levels of what's unattainable, one being the ineffable that you're pointing to. We have the implements, yet language always falls short of reaching that thing we want to reach or thinking that we somehow can. It’s what Allen Grossman, then Ben Lerner following him, calls the poem's ‘bitter logic.’ But that’s also what the poem is for—pointing towards the thing we can't do. There's the failure to be perfect, even when we have the language.

Something I was also interested in was the feeling that the letters are there, but I don't know what to do with them. Or that feeling of the implements being there before we have access to properly make use of them. A tool is just an inert object before we can do something with it, which feels like another place of limit.

Once you use the tool, what does the tool become for you?

JD: My first sense is it becomes a part of the self, so you don't consider it as separate. We're not thinking about the pen in the hand when we're writing. We're not thinking about language when we use it. Once we have fluency with an instrument of some sort, then it's no longer something that we're necessarily conscious of. We're just working with it and that's almost like internalization. That's very powerful, but there's a loss too.

What does your process of crafting a poem look like for you?

JD: On the concrete level, I think it varies in terms of my process. Often I'm drawn to sound and I usually don’t have a clear sense of where I'm going with the sound. I'm also very interested in how there is no poem without a poem that comes before it. There's always something that leads to the next thing. When I was beginning to work on this poem, I was thinking about the grammar of a childhood experience in poetry. I was thinking of Seamus Heaney in Death of a Naturalist and the ways a childhood experience can be narrated in an evenly structured form, but could also open up into something unknowable or terrifying. Often poems are coming from other poems or from reading someone, then being motivated into language.

In the last few lines you write, "waiting madly for someone wiser / To let me use what I already had." Who is the "someone wiser" that the speaker is seeking this sense of permission from?

JD: I found myself in the last few years writing more about childhood experience and thinking about that in relation to my adult identity as a teacher. I found myself writing about how I come from a family of teachers and the place of educational systems in how I was raised and how I engage with the world. A lot of the places I work with in my poems now have to do with knowing and unknowing. It has to do with the sense of some boundary between worlds, maybe the world of childhood and the world of adulthood, or the world of ignorance and the world of knowledge. It seems there's often a gatekeeper there, whether it's a person or some figure who occupies that role for us. So there's always someone wiser. There's always someone to play that role.

Currently, you're pursuing a Master's in Social Work. How did you decide to pursue social work and psychotherapy?

JD: I think I've found myself heading towards that for a while and it was only in the last couple of years that I could recognize that. We see so much of people through the language they use, on the page and verbally. Even when I started to teach composition and Undergraduate Writing at Columbia, it was fascinating to give that scrutiny to people's sentences and think about the relationship to knowledge and power. That happens in our poems and that happens in all the things we write. I found myself wanting to engage with people through their language and not just in a directly creative pursuit but in other ways of thinking about the patterns in our lives and how we become stuck and unstuck. The mixed blessings and curses of the pandemic—and I say that with great privilege in being in a safe place for it—gave me a lot of time to think about what I was going towards that ultimately led me towards pursuing my MSW.

How did you arrive at poetry?

JD: I was always a reader and I admired poems, but I was intimidated by them. When I was younger, my main creative expression was through music and I played a lot of piano. At a certain point, it seemed to make more sense to move towards what was happening in language. It also felt like using English gave me the right balance of something that I had a certain mastery over—in whatever way we have mastery as speakers of English. It also made room for the unknowable in a way that I was drawn towards musically. I think that took hold, but I didn't start writing poems seriously until I was in college.

Whether through language, music, or the other ways we present ourselves to the world, why do you think self-expression is so important to the human experience?

JD: That’s a great question. There's something that feels very immediate about expression. I think a big part of it is some sort of externalization. It's about something that is you and is not you at once...something comes out of you and it's out in the world and it exists.

The joy and terror of the poetry workshop is that all of a sudden, this thing is no longer mine. That's why people often come into a workshop and say things like, I just don't know if this is working. We kind of shrug about our poems, but that's because there's this weird moment where it's no longer our thing. All of a sudden the poem has legs and is just on its own, and it says something about me that I did not know it was saying. Letting something become its own object is a strange and powerful experience. I think that's a big part of why we make things.

Outside of poetry, what have you been reading?

JD: I'm learning to read psychoanalytic theory and I have mixed feelings. It can move away from the human and intellectualize things excessively. But that's the challenge with all theory and literary criticism, too, where it's at its best when you recognize it is its own art form rather than something purely critical and rational. I've spent a lot of time reading literary theory and loving some of it and often being intimidated by it. But I do think the greatest thing we can do with theory is when we're reading diagonally across the text, rather than trying to assume there's perfect knowledge to be gleaned from it…to treat it as any language, as literature, where it has texture and weird choices and eccentricities.

Much of the theory I'm reading is not just about how one person works as a mind, but how things are co-created between people, or how things exist within the interaction between two minds or two subjectivities. There's an interaction between the poem and you as a reader that is neither your mind nor the poem's mind. You both have your own intelligence, but there's something that happens when you as a reader have an experience that is intersubjective. This is also different from what happens between the poet and the poem, which is also a third thing that's occurring between them. All these translations and ways that a person and a work of art relate to one another bring out things that are individually discreetly theirs and are also made new through that interaction.

What is something that you've been thinking about lately?

JD: There’s one poetry thing I've been thinking about a lot lately. A hobby horse of creative writing classrooms is that we talk about description and detail. I wonder why that is so important and what is just something that's been handed down by the white heteropatriarchy that also created the writers' workshop. Why do we value that in writing? I think a big part is that description, image, and detail create the first common ground. Often what makes a reader less self-conscious about whether they understand or not, or whether they know what the writer is talking about or not, is simply having a thing to look at. It's almost like the experience of two people facing each other versus having an experience together facing away. There's so much excitement in sharing an experience where we're not looking at each other, but we're looking at some third thing. Having some sort of descriptive material, especially early on in a poem, can give us that means for connection. It's a way you build a relationship with a reader just in that tiny moment.