Question & Answer: Ramola Dharmaraj, MFA ’91

Ramola Dharmaraj, MFA ’91, chose the poetry track for her studies at Mason, but to define her as a poet does little to recognize the breadth of her writing — not just since her graduation but even before coming to the U.S.

As early as her teens and twenties, she began publishing short stories in newspapers and magazines in her native India, and later wrote feature stories during a brief stint as a freelance journalist. (Incidentally, her undergraduate years and first grad school experiences weren’t focused on literature at all. She majored in Physics in college, and then completed an MBA.)

Since studying poetry at Mason, Ramola D (as she’s published) has earned distinction across genres as well. Her poetry, short fiction, non-fiction, and writer-interviews have appeared or been reprinted in Oklahoma Review, Blackbird, Prairie Schooner, Green Mountains Review, Indiana Review, Writer's Chronicle, Agni, Indian Express. Her work has been anthologized in both Best American Poetry 1994 and Best American Fantasy 2007 and short-listed in Best American Short Stories 2007. She won a Washington Writers’ Publishing House award in 1998 for her poetry collection Invisible Season, and she recently won the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction for her collection Temporary Lives & Other Stories — the first Mason graduate to win one of AWP’s top book awards. The collection will be published in Fall 2009.

Ramola D teaches creative writing at George Washington University and at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. As the spring semester began, she took time to talk about her work across these genres.

Given your long-time interests in fiction, why poetry at Mason? I had always (fatuously perhaps) believed I could write prose, but I also had been writing poetry since six and was curious about poetics. When I applied to Mason and was accepted (with both poetry and prose samples) and was informed (by Peter Klappert, who was instrumental in admitting me to Mason) that I was required to choose a genre, I was not so happy about needing to choose, but I chose poetry, because I felt there was a lot more I needed to learn about poetry and poetics. I hope things have changed now, that you can study both poetry and fiction at Mason.

What stands out about your studies at Mason and how has your time here influenced your writing now? I took a lot of literature classes, and especially recall a science fiction and literary theory class with Tom Moylan—the texts he had us read (Joanna Russ’s Female Man for one) were eye-opening. I also took a class on British Modernism and read fiction I had been wanting to read — Dubliners, Ulysses, To the Lighthouse. I did take one fiction workshop, with Richard Bausch; it started as a workshop and became an independent study. I wished later I could have studied more with him. He was amazingly open, generous, and thoughtful as a teacher. But I have to say the poetry I read and studied, both in workshop and in literature classes, with Susan Tichy, Carolyn Forche — both also amazing, inspiring teachers and writers — and others, has also, inevitably, influenced my fiction, especially work by the South American poets like Vallejo, Neruda, and European and Middle-Eastern poets like Trakl, Rilke, Transtromer, Pessoa, Lorca, Darwish, Hikmet and modern American women poets like Adrienne Rich and Margaret Gibson whom I had not encountered before.

Mason made me a poet. I found that intense focus on poetry exhilarating and validating. To write poetry for years in your journal, to “secretly” read Ginsberg, Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Edna St. Vincent Millay in foreign libraries — USIS and British Council — in Madras while ostensibly studying for exams in Optics and Advanced Integral Calculus, to masquerade for a year as an executive trainee in an oil company, and then to come to an American university and sit around with a bunch of other intense writers, especially at night, reading Rimbaud and Celan and Adorno and call ourselves “poets” — there was nothing like it. It was amazing and surreal and extraordinary.

How has your work as a poet influenced your work as a fiction writer? Or vice-versa, how has your prose writing impacted your poetry? There seems to be a leaning toward narrative in some of your poems, for example. Would you, in turn, call your prose work lyrical in some way? It’s interesting that you say that. I think I’ve only recently discovered the art of consciously writing narrative in poetry, I think my poetry tended to be more rooted in the lyric, although I’m drawn (in reading) to both. On the other hand, it feels impossible to escape narrative, especially when writing out of experience or feeling or observation, but even when playing with language. In writing prose too I have written out of an obsession with language. I have often been accused of being too dense with my prose. Paring down and streamlining in prose has always felt foreign. I’m still working on this.

For a long time I experimented and wrote and was fascinated by that in-between space between poetry and fiction — that Virginia Woolf inhabits, for instance, or Marguerite Duras, or Clarice Lispector. An earlier version of my manuscript Temporary Lives was turned down by editors in New York as being “too lyrical” and “too literary.”  I wrote non-stories, I rebelled against the artifice of plot and continuity and closure.  These days I’m drawn to both classic and experimental fiction, especially in short fiction—I see them merely as different forms to explore and work in—which may be a poetry kind of way of seeing fiction—you know, working in established closed forms like the sonnet or villanelle or open form (free verse).

Many people might consider poetry and prose significantly different directions. I feel that dichotomy, that one can only either be a poet or a fiction writer, is a misapprehension, somebody’s delusion, that filtered down to MFA programs. It’s limiting. It seems to assume that the demands of a poem and a story are radically different, that one can’t write both. I think they are merely two out of many forms of creative expression and always open to exploration by anyone.

You teach writing yourself now. What do you see as the benefits of cross-genre education? And how have you tried to encourage that in your own workshops? In creative writing intro classes at GW, we teach a variety of genres—in this class I usually teach poetry, fiction, and drama. We start with poetry and then move to short fiction; halfway through our focus on fiction we add drama (short drama, that is, one-act plays really). I think each genre informs the other. Attention to language and image and rhythm in poetry translates to fluid, evocative prose in fiction; the close attention to scene and dialogue and plot in drama informs both the dramatic structure and readability of a story; and so on. The Writer’s Center too offers Getting Started workshops where I have taught memoir with poetry and fiction, to adults—I think the appeal here is to try out different genres, to learn from each, to understand each within its own space, and then try to situate oneself within one of those many spaces.

In purely fiction workshops, we always read a diversity of voices—I try to have classes read both Hemingway and Kate Braverman, for instance, to experience both the powers of pared-down prose and of richness of language. We do talk about language and image even as we talk about story arc and character. Similarly in poetry that we read in a poetry workshop or module, we inevitably tease out narrative, and we apply our understanding of narrative arc and point of view to our reading.

 One way in which I try to incorporate documentary in poetry is to ask students to find a recent photograph in the Metro or World sections of the Post that they find compelling and to write a poem describing the event or situation in the photo. Or to read an article on a current domestic or world issue and to write a poem out of that understanding.

I think the value in exposing young writers to different genres is the sense of possibility such an exposure opens up. You begin to see what you can do with the power of repetend or incantation or imagery in fiction, or with writing voices in poetry, you allow yourself to play around a bit inside your chosen form, you understand you can use image, you understand you can use story, or a narrative voice that’s as intimate and confessional as a diarist’s or poet’s. Your scope broadens. You become more experimental, more original.

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