Poet without Borders: Srikanth Reddy talks literature, Chicago, and the world

“I don’t really think of myself as a Chicago poet –even though I was from this city originally, and now find myself planted here in my creative life–but I do think of myself in some ways as a University of Chicago poet!” Srikanth “Chicu” Reddy has had a varied career, one that spans multiple continents. Within the past fifteen years, he has traveled through India and Europe–both places he considers important for his “cultural identity”–attended Harvard, and earned an MFA at the esteemed University of Iowa Creative Writing Program. His childhood in the Chicago suburbs and his present professorship at the UofC Poetry and Poetics program act like bookends for his career, holding the rest together. But still, why a “University of Chicago poet”?

Reddy’s poetry draws on his wide-ranging experiences outside the academy and outside Chicago. Speaking of his collection of poems “Facts for Visitors,” he says, “I wrote a lot of those poems away from home, and as a result I think they’re about the very notion of home. What does that mean? Especially when home is a suburb of Chicago–where I grew up–which is very, very far away from where my parents’ ancestral home exists in India.” The landscapes and atmosphere that are unique to India appear in the poems, but Reddy does not intend India or his Asian-American identity to be the inspiration for his work. Instead, he cites a “vague feeling of disenfranchisement” in American culture, rather than outright ethnic alienation, which from a very early age pushed him towards the “society of literature.” He found that his art flourishes in an academic environment, a conclusion that may seem counterintuitive since criticism and literary writing are traditionally split into two separate fields. But Reddy does not find the halls of academia stifling in the least. For him, it is a place where discussion and collaboration are the norm, something like a “society of literature.”

His interest in poetry grew as he studied the history of literature as an undergraduate student at Harvard. Today, Reddy draws on his colleagues, the scholars at the University of Chicago, to inspire his work and push it in new directions. “This is reflective of a broad trend in the nation today, where poets draw methods and material from a conversation with practicing scholars in academia, and to my mind this is a good thing, too.” The model of the lone genius, punching away at his typewriter, does not represent the contemporary poet’s craft. Writers do not need a lot in order to write, says Reddy, “[but] you need readers and writers to come together,” something he sees happening at the UofC and throughout Hyde Park, as it has for years.

One of the things that Reddy finds exceptional in the literary scene on the South Side of Chicago is its deeply rooted history. As part of what Reddy calls his “initiation” into the world of poetry at the UofC, he edited a collection of essays on the history of literary journals in Hyde Park. Reddy admits “I’m a total amateur when it comes to this material.” He discovered “how deep this history runs” after studying journals like “Big Table” and “Verse,” which disappeared years ago, but are still “formative of our contemporary literary culture.” The “Chicago Review,” which is still published by a staff of graduate students in a house on Woodlawn, introduced readers in the 1950s to the work of William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Philip Roth, among many others. These journals, as well as a huge volume of correspondence between writers and publishers, are archived in the University of Chicago Libraries. Perhaps most important to Reddy’s academic “initiation” were the contacts he made with his colleagues: “There are many people on campus, from senior faculty members like Bob von Hallberg to younger presences like Eirik Steinhoff … who know an enormous amount about this heritage.” Perhaps what is most remarkable about the literary culture of Hyde Park is its continuity. Some journals have stopped publishing only to have new ones take their place, while the “Chicago Review,” with over sixty years of lineage, provides a direct link to Hyde Park’s literary past.

As for the future, Reddy is optimistic: “The scene here is thriving, and I’m excited to watch it continue to grow.” One reason for the positive outlook is the “great enthusiasm” with which students have greeted the administration’s initiatives to promote the arts on campus. Literature may never have been as neglected on campus as the performing or visual arts, and not as in need of help as those other fields, but Reddy still sees the arts initiative as a motivation for students to move forward with their literary projects. “They’ve launched several new literary magazines, they pack the halls at readings, and most importantly they’re writing terrific stuff … I have no doubt that we will be seeing books come out written by our graduates very soon.”

At the center of the UofC’s literary scene is Reddy’s own department, the program for Poetry and Poetics, and he does not disguise his pride in its achievements. “The Poetry and Poetics program is, in my admittedly biased opinion, the most interesting and energetic place for the study of poetry in the nation. We host a prestigious and highly diverse reading series which brings writers of all schools and regions to the University, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The program’s a working group of scholars who come together for a colloquium called the Poetics Workshop, and we also host a lecture series called ‘The History and Forms of Lyric,’ which brings in famous scholars to speak on a range of topics related to poetry.” Most important for Reddy is the way in which the program brings together scholars, writers, and readers for readings, discussions, and lectures.

Reddy finds that his participation in the program pushes his own writing forward. “My current project is, in many ways, the outcome of various theoretical and aesthetic discussions I’ve had with people in Poetry and Poetics.” Reddy’s current project is part scholarship and part literature. It starts with the memoirs of Kurt Waldheim, a former Secretary-General of the United Nations, who was disgraced after his membership in the Nazi Party and complicity in war crimes during World War II were made public. For Reddy, Kurt Waldheim’s memoirs raise issues, not only in terms of ethics, but also literature. “I’m writing a book,” says Reddy, “that erases language from the memoirs of Kurt Waldheim, and tries to find a poem inside his text … crossing out words from his memoirs gave me a way of exploring questions of silence and ethical implication in my own work.” This project brings together Reddy’s scholarly interests with the composition of poetry (composition in this case means crossing out words rather than writing them) to produce a uniquely cerebral work.

Reddy’s work bears the influence of his surroundings, and since coming to the University of Chicago, he has been happily planted in the academy. Reddy hopes to continue along these same lines, but as he puts it, “poets never know what’s around the corner.”