“The Possibility of America”: An Interview with Indran Amirthanayagam by John Wall Barger

Born in 1960 in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon), Indran Amirthanayagam moved to London, England, at eight, and Honolulu at fourteen (where he attended high school with Barack Obama, who was a year younger). He attended Haverford College and then Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. In his years working for the U.S. Foreign Service, he’s been stationed in Haiti, Peru, Mexico, and many other countries. Amirthanayagam has written over twenty books of poetry, in four different languages.

Ten Thousand Steps against the Tyrant (Broadstone Books, 2022), his most recent collection of poems, is rooted firmly in the fall of 2020. Amirthanayagam, aside from being a poet, is a tireless political activist. This book is, among other things, a political rallying cry, part of a grassroots attempt to inspire people to understand specific issues, to think politically, and of course to vote. He saw the Trump/Biden presidential election as one of the most important public struggles of his lifetime. To raise awareness and funds for Biden, he started a popular YouTube poetry channel, posted political poems on his social media platforms, and participated in innumerable Zoom readings. The result was an online political movement, and this slim book can be thought of as a small portion of that excitement, in print.

We spoke on Zoom on a Wednesday evening in May 2022: he at his living room in Rockville, MD, and I in my kitchen in West Philadelphia.

John Wall Barger: How did Ten Thousand Steps against the Tyrant come about as a book?

Indran Amirthanayagam: When I think back to Trump, the American tyrant, back to the horrible things he said and did, his racists comments about Mexicans, his calling Haiti as a “shithole country,” it made my blood boil. I couldn’t believe that a person with such political power and moral stewardship of the nation, in the role of the president, who should be a guide and captain, could be this racist loudmouth, who apparently was quite deranged and susceptible to extreme actions that could put all of us in danger. So I felt I was in danger, as a political being and as a human being in America. The tolerance of criminality, complete disregard for ethics, and doing the right thing. All of that was in the air. And then there was also the pandemic just starting up, early 2020. Around that time, these two forces—Trump and this then-untreatable virus—came together. And at the same time in my personal life, in my own day to day, a relationship ended. My heart matter was troubled. So out of all that this book was born. 

It was very specifically born in alliance with the campaign that the democrats of all shapes and sizes were leading. To win the primary and to be the nominee for their party in the general election. It wasn’t, for me, between Democrats and Republicans. It was an election between decency and dangerous insanity. I’d like to think that I am able to sit down and break bread with anybody, of any political persuasion. But I would not like to sit down and break bread with somebody who could potentially kill me. Or who could potentially get rid of my type. What is my type? It is the migrant. It’s the fresh blood that comes into this American democracy that for me keeps it hoping, keeps the stew simmering, with all of these spices and varieties. And that is the fantasy, or dream, that inspires me about America. The possibility of America.

JWB: Am I right also that, in practical terms, your poems were part of a grassroots response to that campaign? I saw you in action during those months, trying to rouse people to vote. You were posting, I think, these very poems on Facebook and YouTube.

IA: Yes, I was using poetry to rally people. It felt like the last chance that the American democracy had, to stop itself from careening into fascism. I was a worker: my work was writing poems, and sharing them, and writing very directly about what was going on. What the candidate Joe Biden was saying, what the candidate Kamala Harris was saying, what the candidate Beto O’Rourke was saying. I had done this previously with my former country, Sri Lanka, writing poems during their brutal civil war. I wrote a book collecting all those poems called Uncivil War. So this is my American political poetry book.

JWB: Maurya Simon, in her forward to Ten Thousand Steps against the Tyrant, says, “Without being pedantic, doctrinaire, nor strident, Amirthanayagam’s poems are political in the best possible way, for they act as calls to action on behalf of America’s beleaguered and disenfranchised, as well as for the ‘silent majority’ who, in ‘this once blessed land’ are ‘smarting from / four years of locusts, plague.’” What is political poetry, and what were your inspirations for the political poems of this book?

IA: I think I do feel I’m part of a lineage of poets who are not afraid to write about politics, who have engaged politics in their poems. Politics comes from the Greek word polis: community business, community matters. So what are the affairs of the community, what is it that is bothering us as a people, as a community? That is, community writ large—the American community, the community of the United States. What is that term, “The United States”? These are questions that I think it is helpful for us as citizens and as residents of this country, or as people without any status, to ask ourselves. What does it mean to be part of the United States? What does it mean to be part of a country that presents itself on the world stage as the paragon of democracy, the leader of the free world, the giver of hope? “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” it says on the Statue of Liberty. Well, I believe that. I’m an American optimist. I believe in this language. I believe in The Gettysburg Address. And I believe in Biden going to Gettysburg and giving his own address prior to this past election.

And what is politics, what is poetry? For me, every subject is potentially available to the poet, whether it comes from politics, one’s spiritual struggles, the environment, the disappearing jungles, or whatever leads you to write. In ancient Rome, Lucretius’ book On the Nature of Things was considered poetry as well as a medical treatise. So for me politics is just another area for poetry. I’m not a poet who advocates art for art’s sake. Or that poetry has its place and it’s not in the Congress of The United States. Or it’s not in the streets. Or that it somehow “survives in the valley of its own saying,” to quote Auden. I think poetry exists out in the open air.

JWB: Were you aesthetically concerned, while writing Ten Thousand Steps against the Tyrant, that the book is so specifically contextual? That is, its overt message is that people should all come out and vote in the 2020 election. Your poems in this book speak in such an intimate way, with such an intimate voice, as if you knew the reader, and as if you knew that the references (Michelle, Hilary, Beto, Zoom, virus, and so on) would be familiar to the reader. But will these references still be fresh and clear in ten or twenty years?

IA: This is a very difficult thing to know. It requires a crystal ball. I certainly think the references will be fresh. There are, as Marianne Moore once said, “real toads in the imaginary garden.” Things you can touch and feel. Real people. So if I mention the names of these people—in this case, Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, Michelle Obama—many people have associations with them. I imagine in twenty years or fifty years, the new generation will not have the same associations. They’d be figures in history books. “Oh, look,” they might say, “Joe Biden was president of the United States at this time.” But people might not know—as I mention in “In Love And Politics”—that Joe Biden would take a train from Delaware every day to go to the Senate to work, and then take the train back, in order to be present with his family, to feed his children dinner and put them to bed. Those same children who had lost their mother in a terrible car accident. That human tragedy, that story, that human need and desire of the parent is, to me, a very poetic, very universal thing. Perhaps in ten years the overarching storyline would be lost, but these poems offer that storyline. People who read these poems will learn details about this particular political figure’s life. I think history told in poetry is valid. As valid as history told in prose, or history told in scholarly books citing a lot of evidence. We should have history in all of these languages: poetic language, journalistic language, scholarly language. Think about a big table with lots of different kinds of food and drinks. These poems form part of the table, part of the offering. A way into understanding who we were in America at this time.

JWB: Can you talk about the connotations of voting that come up in your book?

IA: Voting is, of course, a sort of metaphor. I would hope that this call to vote would not only be thought of as a call to vote in the 2020 election. It’s a rallying cry for what we human beings in democratic societies must do to engage our politicians, and to hold them to account through the ballot box. These are political love poems, in some sense. There is love in these poems. Some are quite intimate. For example, “In Love And Politics,” which is about Inauguration Day, the speaker sits down on the grass and listens. It’s the carnival of inauguration day, seen from a personal perspective. These are personal love poems about community matters. Addresses to my love, asking if she is voting, eating, finding her way home safely. In the second section of the book, called “(The Mother of) … Pandemics,” I touch on universal dilemmas in poems like “Torch” and “Late Night Olive Oil.” Throughout the book, there’s the figure of the mother. The speaker addresses his mother, saying that this might be the last election where she has the chance to make a difference. That same mother later stumbles through the dark looking for olive oil, to bathe her skin, but is not able to make it to the kitchen because of her difficulties walking. The mother is now a child and the speaker is the stern parent saying, “Do not do this.” So the personal finds its way into these poems.

JWB: You have numerous poems in your books about Allen Ginsberg, who was your friend. Would you talk about the background to your poem, “The Relevance of Allen Ginsberg”?

IA: He invited me to come to a reading he was giving in downtown Manhattan. At the time I was in journalism school at Columbia. I was very busy and had no time at all for poetry. But because it was Allen Ginsberg and I was thrilled to be his friend, I decided to accept the invitation. So I went downtown to the Lower East Side from the Upper West Side. I heard Allen read and he asked me to read, a poem about the marines who were killed in a bombing in Beirut. A very political poem, about the murder of American servicemen abroad. They were sleeping together and their dormitory was bombed. Two hundred forty people died. And the tat-a-tat rhythms of my poem are the tat-a-tat of the machine gun. That’s the background to “The Relevance of Allen Ginsberg.” Then, when I’m telling the story of Ginsberg, it shifts to the poetry of the moment: getting “rid of the golden tamarind toupee.” Getting Trump out of the people’s house.

JWB: I noticed that, as in your Ginsberg poem, quite a few poems—especially in the first section, “(The Mother of) … Elections”—shift from the particular to the political. For example, “A Mole for the Side” begins with a medical concern of the speaker, then switches to the body politic. Similarly, “Soul Rising” begins with desire (“I miss you something fierce”) and shifts to politics (“cold- / calling a Texan in the name of / participatory democracy”).

IA: I agree that there is that movement towards the political, in some of these poems. But I’m not bothered by that movement. The movement just says, we are in both worlds at the same time. We are in the personal, then we are in the political. In some cases, that shift comes from anger. I mean, the people’s house is being desecrated! 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has been taken over and needs to be cleaned. Only then, after the cleaning, after the ablutions, you can speak to me, as I say in the Ginsberg poem, “about the humming birds and next year’s cherry blossoms.” I know there’s a sense for some in America that poems should not be utilitarian, or should not be used for a political purpose. That poems are sacred somehow, almost a spiritual expression. But for me the church is very political. A sermon can be both political and poetic. The priest that gives a sermon to the flock is not just interpreting the bible; he’s also providing instructions on how to engage with the sick, how to engage with the poor, how to engage with political power. My background is Catholic, so I’m focused on the Catholic Church. My heroes as poets are Ernesto Cardenal and Thomas Merton, who were a priest and a monk. But they got into trouble, especially Cardenal who was defrocked. He was not allowed to say mass for a while because of his political activism. So I’m fascinated by the meeting of spiritual and political belief. And some of that is in this book.

JWB: Can you comment on the voice you’ve chosen in these poems, of the “village elder”? It’s a “we” voice that strikes my ear as both political and personal, reflecting Whitman and also, possibly, Langston Hughes. This is from “Address Beyond Gettysburg”: “I am running with Iowa farmers, former steel workers / of Bethlehem, chicken pickers of Perdue plants in Tennessee. / I am not satisfied with the way things are in fifty states and all / the dependencies.” 

IA: Very important that I write “fifty states and all / the dependencies,” you know? There are these places, like Puerto Rico and Guam, where people don’t have all of the rights that come with citizenship, including voting rights. There are no senators or congressmen and women from Puerto Rico. And so the question is why. For me, we require a revolution. We must revisit these incongruences, ensuring that a vote in Puerto Rico will have the same value as a vote in New York or Texas. I am a great believer in the restoration of decency in America and anywhere in the world. Yes, human beings are egotistical, selfish, and not necessarily their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. But I also have a contrary idea, which is very Whitmanian—“Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”—that we are better than the selfish, solipsistic, navel-gazing person. We can do better.

JWB: Anne Casey says, about your book, that it’s “A powerful anthem for social justice … and a wholehearted call to fellowship …” Would you comment on who the book is directed at? The world is so splintered these days, so tribal. Your book seems to be written for democrats, but is there a way into your poems for people on the other side of the aisle?

IA: I really think that the “we” in my book includes people from different stations of life, and different skin tones. It’s a kind of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, can-do, optimistic  group of people. It’s not just minorities or migrants that I’m addressing. I don’t want to limit myself to a liberal democratic audience. Yes, I’m advocating for Joe Biden in this book. But ultimately we all have hearts and feelings. We can all be bruised and hurt, we can all be gladdened by love. Even “a wretch like me,” as the lyric goes in “Amazing Grace.” I believe in that song, and I think that song is infused in my book. This is a very American book of optimism; it’s a book that I would read from at a memorial for the victims of a racist or terrorist act. I remember Obama singing “Amazing Grace” in 2015 after the nine churchgoers were murdered by a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina. His singing helped us to heal. And I hope this book is also helpful in that way, as part of the healing process.

John Wall Barger’s essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Kenyon Review Online, The Hopkins Review, Zyzzyva, The Mississippi Review, Poetry Northwest, Literary Matters, The Rumpus, Rain Taxi, Jacket2, and elsewhere. His sixth book of poems, Smog Mother (Palimpsest Press), comes out this fall. He is a contract editor with Frontenac House, and teaches creative writing at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

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