Samyak Shertok, Aspen Words writer in residence, on his poetic journey
Special to The Aspen Times
IF YOU GO. . .
What: Samyak Shertok reading
Where: Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar
When: Tuesday, Aug. 20, 5:30 p.m.
How much: Free
More info: aspenwords.org
Growing up in Nepal, Samyak Shertok never imagined that poetry could be a vocation. But in his journey as a student in the United States, and by helping people deal with their own tragedies through poems, Shertok has come to see that poetry could be that and more — including bringing him to a closer understanding of himself, his family and his native land.
A graduate student at the University of Utah and Aspen Words’ August writer in residence, Shertok is working on finalizing his first collection of poems. Tentatively titled “A Sky Burial,” it’s divided into three sections: elegies for his father, his mother and a national elegy for his country during the Maoist revolution that tore Nepal apart from 1996 to 2006.
Raised in a tiny Nepalese village where “the only sign of technology was the transistor radio my father owned,” Shertok only knew poems from textbooks, and in his own schooling pursued a science track. Career choices in his world were limited to doctor, engineer and pilot, he said. Following an older brother who was studying in the U.S., he came to study psychology.
But Shertok always enjoyed a good story, which can be any kind of narrative regardless of genre, he explained. It can be an image, a line someone says to someone else, or even relationship between sounds.
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“It’s about a journey from point A to point B, even if point B is not that different and sometimes point B might end up being point A,” he said recently on a walk through the John Denver Sanctuary in Aspen. “But the trip has already altered both points, and point A is not longer what it was when we started.”
It took Shertok some time to tap the poet and storyteller inside of himself. After hearing his brother recite a short, simple poem to group of children from their village, he realized that “anyone could write; you don’t have to be old or have a Ph.D.” Sitting on a rooftop on a hot, sweaty day, he wondered if his mother would be a poet in her next life when she likened a cool breeze to “a mother blowing on your wound.”
During his sophomore year of college, Shertok found himself reading short stories and poetry when he was bored in his psychology classes. It was only then that it hit him, that if he liked reading literature that much, he was in the wrong major. Browsing courses after he decided to switch to English literature, he was incredulous that creative writing was even a class; he felt a similar sense of wonder when he later found out that one could get a master’s degree in fine arts.
Shertok’s coursework at Arizona State University and later at the University of Mississippi, where he earned MFAs in fiction and poetry, respectively, taught him the craft to turn his knowledge and influences from growing up (including Nepalese literature and culture) into poems and short stories. It “opened a whole new creative writing world,” he said, in which he could continue to study and even work in the field.
But it was Shertok’s experience with an ASU program in conjunction with the Mayo Clinic that brought the real value of poetry home for him. Working with cancer patients, he would listen to their stories and turn them into personalized poems. It was the first time he saw himself as a medium for others’ voices.
“I saw myself as the flute and they were the breath,” Shertok said. “I was trying to help their stories find the shape and music through me.”
The process and the poems clearly meant something to the patients, he said. It indicated that their stories mattered, and it showed that “poetry can keep people alive in a certain way.”
This realization struck Shertok particularly personally, as he had recently lost his own father to cancer, without knowing him as a son should, he said. So he dedicated his efforts at the Mayo Clinic to his father, and would later make him one of the main subjects of his in-progress collection.
Then, in April 2015, a devastating earthquake struck Nepal, killing and injuring thousands and leaving millions homeless. Though Shertok’s immediate family escaped harm, his childhood home was flattened and he knew plenty of people who weren’t so lucky. His graduate thesis at Ole Miss became a collection of poems about the earthquake, for which he won a competition at the school.
But, more importantly, Shertok had to deal with the feelings of helplessness the earthquake brought out in him and survivors in Nepal. Raising funds through Kickstarter, he launched Healing Through Poetry: Nepal Earthquake Project, which brought him home to speak with victims, write poems for them, and teach poetry workshops to those interested in using their own voices. These efforts helped the Nepalese express their feelings and fears of hope, loss and uncertainty. They wrote poems from the perspective of the Earth, to the Earth, and as letters to the government for not doing enough for its people in the aftermath.
After the earthquake, poetry was “about what do you do in a time of disaster when there’s nothing much you can do,” Shertok said. “There’s something about poetry that connects us with each other, more than our bodies that might not be there tomorrow.”
Whether it was helping people come to terms with personal health issues or a natural disaster, the most important thing Shertok realized was “how pragmatic, how urgent poetry is and how real its effects are — because we often think of poetry as a luxury.”
And so, in his first collection of poetry, about his mother, his father and the Maoist revolution, Shertok is writing first for himself — and for his family whose stories are worth sharing, he said. He’s getting to know his deceased father better through this work and honoring his mother while she’s still alive. Having grown up during the revolution (he was 9 years old when it broke out, and his village was caught in the crossfire) Shertok wants to give voice to those who were affected. Besides empathy, he also wants to express gratitude, he said.
“Everything is a gift,” he said. “Where I am today is because of the gifts of very many hands. I’m trying to hold them and kiss those hands.”
And poetry, like love, is ideally a two-way street, Shertok discovered.
“For me, poetry is to understand myself and my feelings, and once I come to a place of understanding, a sense of arrival or grounding, my hope is the reader will also find something,” he said. “The ultimate reward is if the poem enters the consciousness of the reader.”
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