It wasn’t just a trip to India that inspired poet George Kalamaras to write The Theory and Function of Mangoes, it was also the reverse culture shock he felt when he got home. “Suddenly I was in my air-conditioned car, commuting to work in a climate-controlled building, everything sanitized on the surface,” he says. “This junction made my experiences in India more profound. The poems began to pour out.”
The resulting collection is lush, musical, and passionate. Dense with sensuous detail–Benares river rock, water-buffalo piss, clay pot, rickshaw–these deeply intellectual yet accessible poems transport you into the streets of India, the lives of sadhus (Hindu holy men), and a world of yoga, meditation, and mysticism.
Kalamaras, a longtime practitioner of yogic meditation, says he didn’t intend to “turn the world on to yoga” with Mangoes. “Sometimes if you talk about meditation in the wrong context,” he says, “you get perceived as New Agey, as fluffy, or as coming from some kind of hip, trendy philosophical position.” An associate professor of English at Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne, Kalamaras went to India to study the relationship between Hindu mysticism and his academic specialty: composition theory. But it was poetry that allowed him to write about his experiences in appropriately complex ways.
Mangoes, Kalamaras’ first published collection, won a contest: the Four Way Books 1998 Intro Series in Poetry. Since poetry doesn’t “sell” in the United States, and public arts funding has diminished, many independent presses host competitions–most with $15 to $25 reading fees–to raise funds to keep poetry in print. Contests also increase visibility, attract new writers, and stave off the narrow aesthetic so easy for a small staff to fall into. “I don’t want Four Way to be known as a certain kind of press,” says director Martha Rhodes, who with Dzvinia Orlowsky founded Four Way in 1995. Each year they choose an outside poet as judge; it was Michael Burkard who selected The Theory and Function of Mangoes from 1,000 manuscripts.