Pramila Venkateswaran, GW English PhD, Named Suffolk County New York Poet Laureate

Suffolk County New York Poet Laureate
Pramila Venkateswaran

Professor Pramila Venkateswaran, who received her PhD from GW’s English Department in 1988, recently became the Poet Laureate of Suffolk County, New York.  We chatted with Professor Venkateswaran about her selection as laureate, her poetry, and her memories of the GW English department:

1.    When did you graduate from GW?  What was your degree?  With whom did you study?

I graduated from GW in 1988. My dissertation advisor was Prof. Judith Plotz.  My Ph.D. was in English; my dissertation was on  “Romantic Irony in the works of Thomas Beddoes.”
2.    Are there particular professors at GW whom you remember more than others?  Why?

My favorite professors were Judith Plotz and Robert Combs. Plotz got me to think more analytically in the area of literary criticism (later known as critical theory) and Combs’ comprehensive knowledge of European, particularly German poets, and his ability to make his students ask penetrating questions about modern poetry enhanced my love for poetry. Although I did not take courses with Lucille Clifton when she was poet-in-residence at GW, I hung out in her office showing her my poems and talking about the significance of punctuation and how it affects the line in a poem.
3.  How much of your education took place in India?  Were there significant differences between your Indian and American schooling?

 I did my Masters in English in Bombay University and came to GW for my Ph.D. In the Indian university system, I did not have any choice in courses in my major, which was English literature. We worked our way all the way from Chaucer to the moderns, read most of the novels of the 18thand 19th centuries, and all the major literary critics. Since the exams we took at the end of our B.A. were national exams, we had to know these writers really well to be able to sit for these exams and pass them.  So when I arrived at GW, I found the comprehensive exams for Ph.D. (8-hour exams in 4 areas) to be more or less an extension of my Indian exam-taking experience. What excited me about GW was the opportunity to explore different courses and have the choice to venture outside of a strict curriculum, such as taking a course on Epistolary Writing in the 18th Century at the Folger Library or a course on the Transcendentalists.

4.  How long have you worked at Nassau Community College?  What are some of the courses you teach?

  I started teaching at NCC in 1990. At first I worked in the Writing Center and then from 1995 I started working in the English Department.  I teach Freshman Composition and English electives, such as Modern Poetry, Survey of American Literature, Poetry Writing, Creative Writing, Introduction to Women’s Studies, and Goddesses in World Religions. 
5.  You have just been named poet laureate of Suffolk County, Long Island.  How did that come about?  What does the job entail?  How do you yourself conceive of the position, both locally and nationally?

I was among a list of names that were submitted to the poet laureate committee for consideration. The nominations were based on their track record of publication and poetry service to the community. Since I had already published 4 books of poetry and had many poems in national and international journals and had been featured at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, I was asked by the committee if I would like to serve as poet laureate. I agreed, since it seemed like the right time for me to do this work.  As poet laureate, I give readings all across the county, organize readings at different venues and arrange for poets in the community to be featured at these venues, and bring poetry to places where it is not known to happen, such as farms, hospitals, government offices, and beauty salons! I have so far organized readings at farms, veterans hospitals, elementary schools, and breast cancer survivors groups.  I also mentor a couple of young poets. I think laureateship is important for it brings attention to poetry and its function in society.  I was surprised when I had to go to the Suffolk Legislator to be officially assigned the position, reminding me of Shelly’s words about poets being the “unacknowledged legislators”!
6.  How would you characterize the kind of poetry you tend to write? Are there particular poets by whom you’ve been influenced?

I am not sure what label would fit my poetry. Some of my poetry is feminist and political, while some of it explores our relationship to nature and the spirit. I write both in free verse and in form and love to play with language. My major influences while in India were modern Indian poets like Nissim Ezekiel and Arun Kolakar, and after I came to the U.S. I became devoted to Carolyn Forche and Adrienne Rich and many more.  I carry with me the melodies of Sanskrit poetry—a lot of which we knew by heart growing up since they were part of Indian devotional culture. I admire many European poets, such as Anna Swir, Rilke, Zbigniew Herbert, and Paul Celan.
7. Do you have any thoughts to share with GW English majors who are thinking about their professional and creative futures?

My advice to students of creative writing is to write every day, even if it is just a line. The Sanskrit term “sadhana” or discipline is important if one wants to become reasonably good at a task. And if you are reading a poem by your favorite poet, study the poem carefully by going over every line and word to understand the structure of the poem, your pencil marks littering the poem, helping you grasp the creative process of the writer. Modeling your favorite writers can be a beginning to later finding your own style and voice.  Even if your work after graduation may not relate to your major, you may find that the act of reading and writing sustains you in more ways than you can imagine.

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