A Loving Surgeon


imagesNovelist and poet Jeet Thayil held the first masterclass for this year’s MA. Easily seduced and readily impressed, I drew a picture of him in a cool denim jacket inside my notebook. I also took some notes, which are presented below:




Everybody knows poets don’t make any money, so they can get away with a lot. Readers have some expectations of ‘correctness’ from a novel while poets are expected to be half-insane.

Keep one continuous notebook for a dedicated period in your life, for everything — grocery list next to class notes, a hard-earned phone number next to a sketch of a bird. It will read like strange and personal poetry in the end.28086987

Poetry loves a list. The structure is so familiar, there’s freedom to be crazy inside it.

It’s a fashionable claim that a poem should stand completely alone, and should not need the context and history it was written in. But how much poorer would we be if we did not know it. Look at Lowell’s ‘Skunk Hour’. (We did.)



When violence is gratuitous, it is not correct. We’ve seen movies that feel like the director is getting off. It is gratuitous when you can remove violence and not lose anything. Take Homer’s Odyssey, take the Bible — violence is integral to those stories and you cannot remove it. Odysseus monologues on the slaughter he’s about to commit. The slaughter is integral to the tale. Jesus’s disciples were suicides; nobody followed him and expected to live very long.35285194


Jeet echoed James A. Michener: he is not a writer but a rewriter.  At the start of each day, he will go over the previous day’s work and revise or re-write it, which can take several hours.

Reading poetry, before beginning to write, is also a useful practice.

Be wary of the parts you are fond of simply because you had tremendous fun writing them. They may not suit the story. Those might be the darlings to stalk and murder.

Other Experiences

Jeet fielded questions from students, about writing other cultures, or experiences vastly different from one’s own. If you’re not going to risk being disliked, Jeet said, there is no point in writing, and the key to writing such work is paying extremely close attention. To write as a total act of love. The writer as surgeon, lovingly cutting up what he or she sees. Might showing someone and asking, “is this OK” be a good idea? No it will not be OK. It will destroy you as a writer.

During the coffee break I asked Jeet if he outlined his novels. He didn’t. Thank you, Jeet Thayil, for coming from far away and teaching a fantastic masterclass.


Jeet Thayil was a guest at Writers and Readers, The New Zealand Festival, Wellington March 2018. He is an Indian poet, novelist, librettist and musician. His most recent novel is The Book of Chocolate Saints. Read some of his poems here.


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