Reaching a Pulse Point: Melody Nixon Interviews Rushi Vyas

Content warning: This interview discusses death by suicide.

Headshot of Rushi Vyas Headshot of melody nixon


MELODY NIXON and RUSHI VYAS first met at a 2020 poetics seminar hosted by the University of Otago, where Vyas is completing a PhD in Poetics. Since that meeting Nixon and Vyas have exchanged thoughts on poetry, grief, and their own experiences of parental death by suicide as they each became new parents themselves.

This conversation distills some of those themes in relation to Vyas’ 2023 chasmic collection When I Reach for Your Pulse (Four Way Books and Otago University Press), which was a two-time finalist for the National Poetry Series and is currently longlisted for New Zealand’s Ockham Book Awards. Vyas is also co-author of the collaborative chapbook Between Us, Not Half a Saint with Rajiv Mohabir (Gasher Press, 2021). Born in Toledo, Ohio, Vyas now lives in Ōtepoti Dunedin, Aotearoa New Zealand, while Nixon lives on another Aotearoa island in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, Wellington.

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Melody Nixon (MN): Your new collection When I Reach for Your Pulse begins with the incredibly striking “Effigy”—but before I get there, let’s reach further back. Which was the first poem you wrote for this collection? Can you describe the moment you first realized this was a beginning, the beginning?

Rushi Vyas (RV): Two days before my father died, I went on a morning walk in a park in Toledo, Ohio with an old friend, a hobby entomologist, from my anatomy lab in medical school. On the walk, we encountered a cicada on its back on the path, dying. My friend picked up the creature, told me some facts about cicadas which I have since forgotten, and then back at her apartment she showed me her process for preserving dead bugs. On her wall, there was a frame with many labeled bugs.

This led to (a much different version of) “Entomology // Mirage”. I must have written this sometime in the year following my dad’s death. The confluence of images from the walk with my friend and the feelings I had in the immediate aftermath of finding my Dad when I stepped onto the driveway of my childhood home in the heat of early September taught me something. “The unflinching thin exoskeleton between rage and vulnerability” was a line that emerged from what the cicada taught me about how close we are to death, but also how fine the border is between our ability to heal with tenderness or grow callous with paranoia and bitterness. I guess that thinness of the exoskeletons we use to protect us was an entry point for me meditating on and trying to grow my relationship to openness and space in this life. 

cover of when I reach for your pulse
MN: Thank you for that evocative description, and I’m struck again—as I often am when reading your poems—by the frankness of your approach to difficult topics. With When I Reach for Your Pulse you’ve tackled one of the most taboo subjects in our US-Euro society; death by suicide, an event that until only very recently has been misunderstood, sometimes labeled as selfish, other times as weak, and only rarely as the result of complex mental illness. The collection begins with these opening lines, from the poem “Effigy:”

I waited all my life for my father
to die and when he finally did I heard
the whip of voices caged within
his skull…

Can you talk about this line break between “my father” and “to die.” To me it symbolizes a momentous break, a chasm to be crossed: the chasm of the event of your father’s death by suicide, crossed by the step or steps you took to enter an unknown space and write this collection. What does the line break mean to you?

RV: Thank you for this question, Melody, and for reading into that break. I think it puts extra emphasis on the act of “waiting.” Often when we live with someone who is unwell, and as a result, prone to abusive behavior—we are in touch with the totality of their humanity. Viewing from the outside, someone might think of the violent person as an unequivocal evil. But when it’s a loved one, there is that dual-edge.

If we are lucky enough to have the distance to gain perspective, as I was with my Dad, I was aware of how wrong his actions were. Yet, I was close enough to see the desire for tenderness signified by his discomfort with joy and tenderness. In addition to moving toward independence and safety, I also waited—hoped—for him to come to, own up to his behavior, seek help, and get better. There were days I just wanted the family violence to end by a quick death. There were days I imagined that enlightenment would somehow wallop him into waking up from the nightmare he’d made of our home. And so at the same time I was “waiting for him” to want to heal, I was also waiting for his death to release us from the domestic torment we faced living with him. 

MN: A liminal state, a state of suspension. The “waiting” you describe feels particularly visceral.

RV: The chasm you read into the line break might apply. In the sense that, and I’m drawing a bit on Buddhist philosophy here, hope is a chasm. That line break symbolizes both “hope” and the futility of it, the constant deferral to a non-existent moment that clinging to hope creates. As I answer this question now, I am starting to see that line break as the death of hope, but in a positive way. When the hope for my father to get better died, I was able to enter into a more honest relationship with him. I became able to do the work of these poems—to face the confluence of histories and circumstances that fed my father’s suicide, that feed family violence and suicide in general. 

MN: That is so powerful. In your responses here, and in your poems, you maintain such integrity in relation to violence and suicide. What motivates you—poetically, emotionally, and in your own healing process—to write about these topics, if such a motivation can be identified? Who do you seek to honor, and what myths do you wish to dispel?

RV: Publishing these poems was a conscious choice, but the writing was just something that I think my psyche, my body, needed to do. Grief can isolate us. In particular, I felt early on that finding my father dead by suicide, the event of finding him, could have been something that isolated me deeply.

Growing up in the suburban US, as a brown person in white suburbia, we are taught to make grief palatable. Expressions of sorrow are permitted, so long as we “move on” or “move forward.” There is the assumption that, no matter who it is that died or how they lived, once they are gone we are to only “remember the good times” and so let them rest in peace. I think these dominant narratives discourage folks from being open and honest about their grief. There is a certain shame I sense in friends and acquaintances when they begin to share about their own grief stories. Often, these expressions are followed by apologies about “oversharing.”

MN: I know that apology, I’ve made it many times! It’s a request for validation, I think, from shame, and also a testing of the waters—a search for a response that says “You can go on, it’s safe for you to do so.” But in poetry, we don’t need to apologize, do we?

RV: Poetry, the act of writing poetry in community with teachers and other poets, allowed me to express my experience with this grief. And these poems have led me out of seeing my own story in isolation, and rather as something tied to my family’s histories and histories of the world. Suicide is never the fault of any individual. It is a fault of all of us, and the cultures we allow to grow (often out of legacies of colonialism) that cause people to see no other escape. 

these poems have led me out of seeing my own story in isolation, and rather as something tied to my family’s histories and histories of the world.”

MN: You write that: “these poems have led me out of seeing my own story in isolation, and rather as something tied to my family’s histories and histories of the world.” And indeed what’s so striking about this collection is how it wades into a space of intergenerational trauma, silence, absence, taboos, and most of all griefs, which are all personal and collective.

The central event is examined in complex relation with the structures of power and oppression that your father navigated, as a child of a colonized nation (India) and as a migrant (to the US). As such, throughout the text you suggest the exhaustive, exhausting mechanisms of British imperialism in India, the racial capitalism of the US, the associated gender-normative patriarchy, and all the attendant norms, mores, and restrictions that these structures create. Why was important to you to include or illuminate the political context for your loss? And how did that context arrive—surreptitiously? With fanfare?

RV: Often with suicide, we still hear people say “That’s selfish” or blame the individual. I think the same goes for instances of violence—sexual or otherwise—perpetrated by men. An individual is portrayed as “evil” and people—often men—vocalize their disgust for an act as a way of painting themselves as “one of the good ones.”

Suicide is a cultural issue. Family violence is a cultural issue. And more than culture, they are communal, systemic issues. Writing about trauma as a brown person, I wanted to be able to write with critique about my father’s actions without creating an individual villain. Patriarchy affects all of us, and my Dad is not an example of a “bad brown Dad.” He was simply performing masculine control in a way that he was taught—implicitly—was permissible. 

Writing about trauma as a brown person, I wanted to be able to write with critique about my father’s actions without creating an individual villain.”

I didn’t start out writing poems with a conscious intent to critique these systems. But the more I thought about the cultural and historical forces that shaped my life and my family’s life, it was inescapable. We live in relation across space and time. Poetry can, as Eduoard Glissant wrote, “fashion contrary quakes” through enacting a radical mode of relation. And the act of listening and writing the poems taught me that responsibility does not lie with the individual alone. 

MN: That’s beautiful. Although the writing process can be so lonely, individual, and writing your way through such intense terrain carries its weight. Did you get emotional hangovers while writing these? 

RV: I didn’t experience much of an emotional hangover from writing these poems. Writing these poems actually gave me a boost, they buoyed me. But the hangover came post-publication, with the knowledge that these poems are now living with other people and that I cannot control their effect. “Double Slit” is one of my favorite poems in the book and to read, because it was a poetic synthesis of several teachings, and because the subject matter is the heart of what made me feel most alone after my Dad’s death. But the first time I read it in Seattle at AWP 2023, I had a friend share that the poem had a visceral impact on her. And that made it real for me—that these poems do carry that energetic charge.

I think the hangover comes from acknowledging the power some of these poems can have, and needing to learn how to work with them responsibly. 

MN: I guess this is where community comes in—that our relations with other emerging and published writers can buoy us through the process of disclosure, the shocking nakedness (and powerlessness?) of it.

You’ve written elsewhere about the books you’re reading lately, and some of them touch on similar themes you’ve shared—particularly collections by Chloe Hanum and Iona Winter. How has the work of other poets supported you through the publication process?

RV: On a basic level, it has little to do with poetics, reading these books (and I’d add Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost Of and work by CL Young) helped me feel less alone. Because of the cultural silence around suicide, I think we are taught to feel “like a buzzkill” if we begin to write into these spaces. Finding other writers who have written through a loss by suicide with nuance encouraged me to keep going.

On a poetic level, Chloe Honum’s deceptive effortlessness in concise lyric form stunned me. I love when short poems can endear themselves to you so much that you want to repeat them until their images and cadences find a place in your bones. Honum’s poem “Spring”—the first poem in The Tulip-Flame is one of those poems. It is at once direct and simple, and yet strange and complex in how it builds a bridge from the micro “chained daisies” to the cosmic “moonlight.” I won’t break down the other poets here, but the durative breadth and reach of Ghost Of moved me even more than the groundbreaking form and materiality her erasure and pastiche enacts. And Iona Winter writes with an alacrity and urgency that enlivens the earth that holds our grieving feet. These poets, all people I know and can talk to, know the relational complexities of suicide and living in its aftermath. CL Young, who writes a lot about friendship, also conveys this grief in forms that span from sonic fragmented lyrics to capacious essays. 

MN: Since we’re back on poetics (hurray!), let me zoom in on another of your poems. “Double Slit” is both so dense and lyrical, it makes sense to me that it is your favorite. In so few lines you manage to link quantum physics, suicide, and the struggle of domestic violence. These lines stand out: 

Think of light: my body approaching— 
now wave; his hanging—now particle.

 Oof! In two short lines you capture the movement of the “I”—the approach, the movement of space and light as reality changes, the feeling of hanging in suspense—and this is mirrored by objects in the same space: particles hanging in the air, and the figure of your father’s hanging. It’s haunting, beautiful, horrifying. 

There are many other incredible lines in “Double Slit”, including this one:  

I offer prasad to the murti of his mangled tongue,
pour milk past hungry mouths into the gutter. 

I’m struck by the ways the Hindi “prasad” (blessed food) and “murti” (statue) flow so naturally in this sentence. I also think about Madhu H. Kaza’s descriptions of translation, and how engaging with her mother tongue, Telugu, is “repair work” in that it’s a way of remembering. Can you talk about the use of Sanskrit and other words—Hindi, Gujarati–in your work? 

RV: Those Sanskrit words, prasad and murti, were used regularly in my childhood home. The language of rituals, conversational Gujarati, and bits of Hindi would blend with English into a language specific to our home. I’m interested in the heightened, ritualistic attention that comes with being a witness to death. These are moments that etch into our cells. To write through them calls upon all the language we’ve learned to attribute to such moments of heightened perception. In US literature, sometimes a bit too much is made about “multilingual” poetry. The way each of us uses language is unique to where we live and who we speak with. Many different versions of English are shaped by the diction and other lingual and cultural influences of where we come from. It doesn’t require much effort for me to lean into the non-English languages that arrive in my poetry because they arise from the language unique to my home. 

I’m interested in the heightened, ritualistic attention that comes with being a witness to death. These are moments that etch into our cells.”

MN: How do you incorporate joy into your writing process? Into your days? What does self-care look like for you at the moment? 

RV: Thank you for asking this question about joy in the writing process. Publishing a book with traumatic content can make it hard for people to look past the heaviness. But I know that in the writing, and when I read the book myself, there is joy in the sense of sonic play, the way lines turn, and the unexpected associations that poetry can bridge together. That attention to the sentence and the line is the joy I feel in writing.

In songs, movies, poems, in novels, I am still moved the most when a level of detail specific to any situation seems to offer commentary that arcs out to the universe. The universe here isn’t the universal, but the specific variations of human experience. While writing is joyful, a lot of this joy comes from editing too, where the heightened attention enlivens my body.

As far as self-care goes, I’m still working that out, especially since having twins in January 2023. I suddenly don’t have the same time for leisurely walks, or meditation, or workouts, so it’s a work in progress! But kids bring so much joy in that they make us embrace our silly playful selves, to find wonder in holding a spoon or looking at a leaf. I think all kids are poets in the way they notice the world. 

While writing is joyful, a lot of this joy comes from editing too, where the heightened attention enlivens my body.”

MN: This whole parenting experience must be one of life’s craziest curveballs. The spectrum of joy and suffering is extended way beyond the horizon—and I can’t even fathom just how far beyond the horizon with twins, how many fathoms. One screaming, sucking, shrieking, laughing newborn blew my mind to pieces. Writing has come furtively, reluctantly, in the middle of the night. How has fatherhood, and twin fatherhood especially, changed your poems, and your relationship to poetry?

RV: Being a father has made me more interested, again, in simple poetry. Short, memorizable poems. Poems that I can read to the kids and maybe that they can carry with them. In my MFA, and often in my own reading choices, I’ve been interested in books—how poems in any given collection speak to one another. While I still am interested in the way books work, I am bringing attention back to individual poems, mainly because that is all I have time to read at any given moment. For writing, I used to take a whole day to write, walk, read, and let poems emerge. Now, I am trying to get into the practice of scribbling poems or lines or ideas down when they come and I have many fragments in different places—Notes App, notebooks, emails.

For self-care, though, there is something so healing about being with my kids. As of writing this, they are 11 months old. Watching them grow rapidly and take in the world is such a joy. And they also offer perspective. It is hard to take my worries about “the writing world” seriously when in their presence. What matters is trying to live into the world I want to see when with the kids. Trying to create the world we know is possible but hasn’t come into being yet. 

 

Book cover image by Sarah Booher, artwork in background by Jade Kake. 

Rushi Vyas is the author of the poetry collection When I Reach for Your Pulse (Four Way Books and Otago University Press).

Melody Nixon is a Kiwi-American writer, lecturer, and artist based in Aotearoa, New Zealand.

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This interview discusses the difficult topic of suicide. The following resources are available if you or someone you know needs support:

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Reaching a Pulse Point: Melody Nixon Interviews Rushi Vyas

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