Rajiv Mohabir has taught fiction, non-fiction, and poetry at Auburn University and the University of Hawai’i. He is the author of two poetry collections: The Cowherd’s Son (2017), which won the 2015 Kundiman Prize, and The Taxidermist’s Cut (2016), which was selected by Brenda Shaughnessy for the 2014 Intro Prize in Poetry by Four Way Books. His work has appeared in various literary journals, including Ploughshares, ARC Poetry, Los Angeles Review, Pacific Review, Poetry, and Asian American Literary Review. As the translator of I Even Regret Night: Holi Songs of Demerara, the only firsthand account of the mass displacement of people from the Anglophone Caribbean (originally published in 1916 by an indentured laborer), he was awarded a 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant and was a recipient of the Hindi Language Fellowships from the American Institute of Indian Studies.
On the relationship between visual music and poetry in your work……..
I came to poetry through music—through translating my Aji’s folk songs that she sang in Guyanese Hindustani. She called the language “Hindustani” and linguists today call it “Bhojpuri.” The songs were beautiful and my Aji was unlettered. The songs were my gateway into thinking about the work of a poem: how they could bear the weight of history and sing out against oppressions. There is a long tradition of songs of dissent: from calling out the colonial machine of the British empire to challenging patriarchal authority of brahminism in Hindu spaces. This is the aspect of the folk songs that lit me on fire.
I try to think of poetry and my poetic genealogy as being in line with this missive: to transpose the music of my family’s “original” poetry for readers today. The connection is both formal as well as thematic. I play with structure and form, assonance and repetition to drive the poem into music.
How did your grandmother Aji, influence you and
help to define your work?
My Aji was one of those women who grew up in an interesting time when Guyana was starting to Westernize—or a time when Indians in the Caribbean still spoke Hindustani as a first language and Creolese (Guyanese Creole) as a second, used outside of the home. Born in 1921 she was the mother of eleven and stepmother of two, raising thirteen children in all, plus grandchildren whose parents left Guyana to study abroad.
She was sharp and witty. Always had a song or story in an intricate web of connection and relation in her mind. Sometimes she would tell a story that lasted thirty minutes. Sometimes the story was compressed into a single couplet. It was multimodal—what we would call it today—filled with concentric anecdotes, songs, and sayings in Creolese and Hindustani.
My Aji grew into a world that changed quickly around her, Creolese supplanting Hindustani; English supplanting Creolese. She was moved to Scarborough, Toronto and became a Canadian yet her songs and stories reflected a time that was being forgotten. None of her grandchildren spoke Hindustani. She taught me what she knew, and I tried to learn as much as I could. I could hear her stories in her own native language, and they moved me.
As poet, scholar, teacher, how did your upbringing influence the way
you teach today and the kinds of poems you create?
If I didn’t have the kind of upbringing that I had, if I didn’t experience alienation from my poetic inheritance I don’t think I would have ever claimed it. Speaking Hindustani was discouraged at every step of the way in my parent’s house. They saw it as backwards and called it “Broken Hindi” as though we were a broken people. If I didn’t have to look through the cracks in the mirror, I would have never seen my own face. My poems are like this too because so many of them are experiments with language: the written and the oral.
I like to use folksong conventions in my writing, and they were something that I had to earn for myself. My parents grew up believing that all ways to get ahead in life were routed through England; that they worked hard to speak “proper” English and to be as Western as they could be for legibility and survival. And I don’t blame them for this. They survived in the ways that they could, doing what they had to. My mother especially.
What is the most valuable advice you give to your students teaching
creative writing in an American University?
I think the most valuable advice that I have is there are no easy answers. Sometimes students of poetry think that there is a formula that leads into a beautiful poem. If “beauty” emerges from craft technique, then it’s false. “Beauty” is one of those words that also points to fascism and white supremacy. What’s “beautiful” is culturally and socially conscribed and created. Anything that goes against the beauty-hegemony is then ugly? What about non-white, non-Western forms and ways of poems that have been changed and marked by migration? What about writing in Creolese—which is its own language and species of English? Is this inherently ugly? I can’t believe that for a second.
It’s better for the poem to speak, to create its own universe of associations and shading. To hold dear the marked-ness of the voice speaking. To believe that we are never broken.
On how poetry can break through the boundaries of the cultural elite……
I think this is very much a North American (and possibly European?) problematic. Poetry lives in the hearts and in the throats of everyone abroad. Maybe it’s a ghazal that’s sung in Pakistan and India. Maybe it’s a verse by Darwish that folks in Ramallah have imprinted on their hearts. Maybe it’s a Calypso that we all know the words to.
We have a way of rarifying poetry instead of making it accessible. It takes an emotional investment. So often readers talk about what the poem does, looking for the mechanics instead of realizing that the thing they hold in their hands thrums with life. How does the poem make you feel? This is the question I believe. If we could teach poetry like this from the earliest of ages, then I think it would stop being a boundaried thing.
I also would say that we need more diverse presses. We need poetry to work for the people again. We need to challenge what we believe to be poetry that’s worth holding dear. The high/low culture is based on hierarchical systems. What if poetry was its own system?
On the subject of the United States and Canada as multicultural and
multilingual countries. How does language shape our identity?
We are trained to see the world through language. We understand paradigms and archetypes linguistically. The United (more like Untied these days…) States wants to pretend that it accepts people and difference, but it doesn’t. Who gets to be multilingual without being attacked in public, shamed, and murdered? It’s white Americans who have a certain class privilege. Not brown and Black folks who bring their languages into the settler state. We are told we are “broken,” and that we will never achieve anything if our parents speak Spanish/Kréyol/Nahuatl/Hindustani in the home. But it’s captivating when college-age white folks study abroad and “speak Spanish fluently.”
I think to keep our languages despite the violence of ESL classes and a white supremacist nation is a political act of resilience. My world was shaped through surviving racism and homophobia.
About the power of words to speak out against oppression,
especially The abhorrent injustices that immigrants have faced and
continue to face in the United States and Canada……
The first thing that fascists try to steal from the public is their voices. Police are killing Black folks on the street, snatching protestors, disappearing Native women. Immigrants are being policed, detained illegally in prison camps along the southern border. Syrian refugees are disallowed, their lives treated as though they’re not worthy of human compassion. Muslims treated with suspicion and hunted in places of worship.
They try to silence us because they know our words are powerful. In many faith traditions words brought life into being. They know that when we speak, we resist the deaths they wish for us: cultural, social, and literal, physical death. The act of speaking wrests the control they wish to exert over us from their hands. It’s as Audre Lorde says, speaking brings into play erotics, necessity, and survival.
What are your current projects?
I am working on edits to my next volume of poetry called Cutlish which will come out with Four Way Books in fall of 2021 as well as edits to my memoir called Antiman, forthcoming from Restless Books in summer of 2021. They both play with language and ancestry.
Cutlish (Four Way Books 2021) is a collection of chutney poems in a form that I developed (or whose migration to the US I sponsored) from the Trinidadian singer Sundar Popo’s style of dance/folk music. It looks deep into and speaks from queer Indo-Caribbean space in New York City, Toronto, and Orlando.
Antiman (Restless Books 2021) charts my arrival into poetry as an immigrant as I puzzle through translating my grandmother’s songs into my life. In the span of years from 2004-2010 I live in Gainesville FL, Varanasi India, and Queens New York City. Against these very different cities I find my way into what I’ve known about myself all along.
What was growing up like for you?
I was an introvert, preferring to read encyclopedias instead of playing basketball with my brother and his friends. I studied nature guidebooks and spent as much time as I could in the forest. We lived in a town of 3000 people in a place called Chuluota, Florida. When I grew up the area was heavily forested and alive.
I think it was safer for me to have a few friends instead of being gregarious. People made fun of me for my weirdness. My unruly curly hair. My pungent food. My love for the natural world. My social awkwardness. My cultural difference. My queerness. It was easier to not make friends than to deal with the anxiety of trying to be appealing to people.
In high school things rounded out a little bit more. My best friend (STILL my best friend today—I’m messaging her as I’m writing the answers to these questions) called Corinne (Steinle) Hyde, was/is my safest place. We found our wierdnesses feeding each other and really let ourselves follow it into self-discovery.
I’m actually still pretty shy unless I’m reading/performing, or unless I know at least one person well in a group—then I will speak and try to make jokes. It usually takes that to get me to open up in a crowd of people.
What advice do you have for young readers and or aspiring writers
trying to navigate these treacherous times?
You are worthy of respect and love. It takes daring to speak out and vast emotional stores to challenge a system that wants to erase you. You can take your time. Rest when your mind and body tell you to. This is a radical act, listening to your body which is the antenna for the sensorial experience of being alive.
People will want to stop you at every step. But speak anyway. Maybe stopping you looks like binding you with handcuffs and cords. Maybe silencing you looks like adding “diversity” to the press’s catalogue and your poems/stories/essays are “the one voice” of your community. That’s bullshit. Every community has myriad voices. Yours will never be the “only one.”
It’s like Audre Lorde says in “A Litany for Survival”
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.
Why Whales Are Back in New York City
After a century, humpbacks migrate
again to Queens. They left
due to sewage and white froth
banking the shores from polychlorinated-
biphenyl-dumping into the Hudson
and winnowing menhaden schools.
But now grace, dark bodies of song
return. Go to the seaside—
Hold your breath. Submerge.
A black fluke silhouetted
against the Manhattan skyline.
Now ICE beats doors
down on Liberty Avenue
to deport. I sit alone on orange
A train seats, mouth sparkling
from Singh’s, no matter how
white supremacy gathers
at the sidewalks, flows down
the streets, we still beat our drums
wild. Watch their false-god statues
prostrate to black and brown hands.
They won’t keep us out
though they send us back.
Our songs will pierce the dark
fathoms. Behold the miracle:
what was once lost
now leaps before you.