An Interview with Rajiv Mohabir
An Interview with Rajiv Mohabir
Rajiv Mohabir’s first collection of poetry, The Taxidermist’s Cut, was the winner of the 2014 Four Way Books Intro Prize in Poetry and a finalist for the 2017 Lambda Literary Award in Gay Poetry. His other books include The Cowherd’s Son (winner of the 2017 Kundiman Poetry Prize), Thunder in the Courtyard (Finishing Line Press, 2016), and his most recent book, a translation of Laibhari Sharma’s poetry, I Even Regret Night (forthcoming). His poem “Dove” appears in Best American Poetry 2015. Other poems and translations appear in journals such as Quarterly West, Guernica, the Collagist, the Journal, Prairie Schooner, Crab Orchard Review, Drunken Boat, sx salon, the Asian American Literary Review, Great River Review, and PANK. He has received several Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations.
Rajiv received his PhD in English from the University of Hawai’i and is currently an assistant professor of poetry in the Department of English at Auburn University. His poem “Why Whales Are Back in New York City,” published by the Academy of American Poets, drew me to his work. I contacted him in delight upon reading this poem, and our interview then took place over several emails in the Spring of 2018.
by Rajiv Mohabir
If you want a poem that obeys
the strictures of doha and dactyl,
then I am unlettered. A crab dog
from backdam and bush shaping
cane into couplet. What do I know
of convention, my father a cowherd
my mother maharajin. The prophet ascended
the heights of verse when the Almighty stoked
fire in his blood. Recite. Recite.
Tell me in rhyme, of this turmoil within
that sears Jibril’s whisper into
the pith of this body.
I’ve always thought in poetry, I guess, my family being quick to break into calypso and chutney song.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar: Thank you so much for doing an interview for sx salon, where your poems “Offering,” “Canis latrans,” “Ramayan,” and “Snowfall in the Tropics” were first published. Can you please talk about your path to writing poetry? At what point do you feel like you committed to writing poetry, and can you talk about this in a way that could help emerging poets (of all ages)?
Rajiv Mohabir: Thank you so much for interviewing me. I am clearly a fan of sx salon. I never thought that writing poetry would lead me anywhere, quite honestly. I think my journey through and to writing may be similar to following “what the poem wants” as you write it. As long as I can remember, I kept a journal—one in which I wrote my thoughts and notes. My notes as a third grader included things like “I don’t like math” and “You are my only friend, Katarunge.” Yes, “dear diary” was a little too tacky for me with my silk shirts, combed-out wild curly hair, and sandals and socks, so I named each of my journals and wrote to them as though they were my friends.
I used poetry—especially metaphor—to hide my queerness away, though I didn’t realize that I was doing precisely that. It offered me a path to secrecy and delight: I was able to be alive in the mirror of what I wrote. I was able to write and make real the secrets that I felt were too hard to hold in. I was a witness to my own life.
Throughout college I studied religious studies. My focus was not on texts as such, the written-down tomes that come to dominate and oppress; rather, I chose to focus on my Aji’s songs. My Aji used to sing these songs in her foreign language that would captivate me. I didn’t know what she was singing until I started to learn Western Standard Hindi and parse together what I could of her Guyanese Bhojpuri. It took me a while, but I started to speak and understand this language. I started to collect her songs and translate them.
I’ve always thought in poetry, I guess, my family being quick to break into calypso and chutney song. I decided to bring my poetry to the forefront of my life when I was teaching in public schools in New York City. I wanted to challenge myself the same way I asked my ELL, immigrant students to rise to their passions. I’ve always loved poetry and translation—so Queens College was a perfect fit for me, in the curry-beating heart of Queens, very close to Little Guyana, where they offered a master’s of fine arts in poetry and translation.
Throughout, the spiritual and the political fascinated me. Bringing poetry to the forefront of my life has meant so many things to me. I start my day with a poem and gather images from my everyday life, and they appear in lines I write. In this way, I followed poetry, starting with where I was. Poetry was all around my Caribbean diasporic self. As I learned more, my passion grew for teaching others this literary history, our history.
If I were going to give students of poetry advice, I would say something about poetry being all around. It’s about noticing it and being present in your own life.
I want the written word to glisten as the songs do.
CB: Which translators are you most inspired by? I’m thinking of A. K. Ramanujan as a model in so many ways—he made ancient poetry seem breathtakingly contemporary and immediate.
RM: A. K. Ramanujan’s translations were very important to me as an undergraduate studying religious studies in Florida. His translations were able to lay bare South Asian—specifically South Indian—poetics in a way that was reachable for my young mind. There’s a specific translated poem by Basavanna (twelfth century) called “The Pot Is a God” that I have kept with me all these years. Ramanujan translates part as,
Gods, gods, there are so many
there’s no place left
for a foot.1
I loved this for its irony, for its realness—for its sacrilege and tenderness. I’ve tried to live up to this line in my poems that take on more religious and spiritual tones.
I think the poet and translator Arvind Krishna Mehrotra has had a most profound impact on my translations. His work with Kabir in his book Songs of Kabir updates the poetic in the spirit of Kabir’s own philosophy. Mehrotra is not afraid of translating the “spirit”—allowing him to use contemporary references while “translating” verses from the late 1400s and early 1500s. It beats the pants off Robert Bly’s Orientalist translations of Kabir—which want Kabir to be a sufi who writes about “the Beloved” and intoxication instead of, well, what Kabir writes about: weaving.
Using Mehrotra’s method of updating language into English poetry, I translate Lalbihari Sharma’s Holi Songs of Demerara (1916), written in Bhojpuri/Awadhi on a sugar plantation. I am plagued with the need to forge the chautal songs, which have a very specific history and social dimension, into English poetry. I want the written word to glisten as the songs do. I want the reader to smell agarbati and watch plumes of abeer stretch out in their colorful clouds.
I am so close to my family’s language death.
CB: With which Caribbean poets do you feel you are in dialogue when you write or revise your poetry?
RM: The first Caribbean poet that I knew was my grandmother. Her poetry-as-music was bewitching in the diaspora. After her, I would have to say Sundar Popo is a poet that I adored and has profoundly influenced me. The thing is, I am so close to my family’s language death. My Aji, Aja, Nani, and Nana all spoke Guyanese Bhojpuri and had access to the profound depths of oral literature. I’m not interested in people thinking that our oral cultures and traditions are lesser than because they are not written down in English. What did English give us anyway other than indenture contracts, alcoholism, and diabetes?
Of my grandparents, I only knew my Aji, and what I was able to learn from her was very special in that she was the last one in the family who knew epic songs as vast as the Ramayana by heart. So it had a particular weight for me in the way other poetry may not have always had. Her poetry is literally where I come from.
After these song-poems, the Caribbean writer who was most important to me was David Dabydeen. His first two books of poems, Slave Song and Coolie Odyssey, were transformative for me. Not only was I able to connect with the themes of indenture, migration, and diaspora, I was able to see someone from a similar background write a book of poems. My family is not very literate in the well-educated literary world sense, where everyone has parents who were professors or artists. My father was disabled, and my mother worked as a janitor to feed us, until she became a teacher (I was in junior high) and then attained her PhD in educational leadership (when I was an adult).
I was stunned to hold this book in my hand, written by a coolie.
CB: The “coolie” concept too is so powerfully invoked within your work. I often feel too that there are hidden histories of enslavement that were part of empire building by the British and much more explicitly slavery than people often talk about.
RM: I think I am fairly obsessed with “coolie” history—I have been writing notes for a project that examines the concept of coolitude created by Khal Torabully and Marina Carter. Coolitude sounds like Negritude, and in fact the concepts are kin, but as Torabully and Carter articulate the nuances, coolitude centers a migratory experience and the creolization process that occurs—avoiding the essentialist pitfalls of Negritude.
There are people who descend from Indian indentured laborers living all over the world and speaking many different languages. One thing that captures my imagination is how Mauritius’s Bhojpuri Boys sing songs that sound like they came from Crabwood Creek, Guyana. What is the poetic thread that we can use to understand our transnational connections? The theorist and short-story writer Mariam Pirbhai proposes a framework through “vocabularies of indenture” that I think has very specific implications for poets and poetry.
In the United States our history is stifled, our bodies are read not as Caribbean but as being directly from the subcontinent. I think it has to do with American racial politics—how do we fit into the white supremacist state? What is an “Indian” body’s relationship to blackness? People like easy, racist answers. The writer and journalist Elizabeth Jaikaran writes about complicated racial dynamics and inheritances in a way that I truly love. How can I be far away from creolization? My language, food, and musical sensibilities have been formed in Caribbean diasporic space.
When the achaar is done, the jar will always carry the scent.
I don’t want a simple narrative about who I am or where I come from. This means that I have to work extra hard to make a platform for Indo-Caribbean poets in the United States. There are some that live in the US, but mostly Indo-Caribbean writing is published in England or Canada. There is not much out there for understanding ourselves in the United States as Indo-Caribbean poets with complicated relationships to culture. I think in some way my involvement in bringing coolitude arts into the US literary public is about making ground for other poets to stand on.
I am from music. I am from Caribbean poets.
CB: I’ve been looking forward, as part of this interview, to soliciting from you a close reading of one of your favorite poems from this collection, The Cowherd’s Son, which won the Kundiman Prize for Poetry.
RM: You are way too kind. This collection is definitely one that terrified me to release into the world. Some people have called my writing sacrilegious and offensive, while others see themselves in it too. I think the multiple intimacies of community, family, and sexuality broaden the world of the speakers in my first collection—like they are all part of the same universe. As a diasporic person, I am from somewhere, no matter how mythological. I am from the Caribbean—this is a story. I am from India—this also is a story. I am from music. I am from Caribbean poets.
I will talk a little bit about the title piece of this collection as it connects to my influences and also coolitude poetics that I’ve briefly mentioned. The poem “The Cowherd’s Son” is a kind of play on the Guyanese poet Rooplall Monar’s poem “The Cowherd.” Since I am a descendant of Guyanese people, I feel as though Monar’s poems are also in the realm of the ancestral—in that his poetry has strong resonances with me in the way it deals with myth.
Famously, Krishna is the “The Cowherd” that both of us reference in our poems. Monar’s Krishna is the unproblematized god of playfulness. For my speaker, Krishna is an ancestor according to caste stories, but also the oppressive deity of the patriarchy—at once homophobic and misogynist. I reimagine the promiscuity of the deva Krishna as something I can queer—much like my relationship to the Caribbean, to Guyana, to Hindi, to Hinduism, and to India.
Formally I chose to have this poem in tercets because in my mind there is something sacred about the number three—or it’s a kind of completion that is also anticouplet: Christian, Hindu, and Muslim. Please do not misunderstand me—I very much love couplets; this poem is not about having even ends but jagged ones that long for a pairing. I wanted play, but I also wanted diaspora and loneliness, a waiting around for a fulfillment of a promise—hence the enjambments and relief with a completion of a thought and a sentence that follows. A line is coming. A return to a whole state is coming—whether it be a return to the Divine when I’m finished with this body or the haunting of a return to India after the fulfillment of an indenture contract that never came. Maybe this is putting too much pressure on a form, trying to read a deeper meaning into my aesthetic choices. Are all cowherd’s sons eventually cowherds themselves?
This poem connects with another poet from the Indian labor diaspora whose work has been a great influence on me—Sudesh Mishra. His poem “Confessions of a Would Be Brahmin” in his book Rahu (1987) has a similar tone that I’ve tried to extend into my generation. I am angry at religion, about the divisions it maintains. The way my parents had to abandon their own traditions for the sake of assimilation into a hostile country where I grew up. The way Hinduism disavows my complicated heritage. The way Christianity preys on vulnerability.
All the names I use are for Krishna in this poem, a kind of direct address that Mishra employs to have a prayerful and unrepentant air. I am not sorry for my various ways of being a bastard—my mixedness, my queerness. By making these connections to both Rooplall Monar and Sudesh Mishra, who write in the vocabularies of indenture across the coolitude landscape, I hope to add my poetic proclivities and obsessions, my own queer voice, and my own version of diasporic brownness.
The Cowherd’s Son
by Rajiv Mohabir
O Krishna, O flautist,
what thrill to wind another’s flute!
To have fingers guide air,
stop its prayer leaking from holes
plugged with pads and mantras.
My prayers are hollow
reeds or shells whose mollusks
I’ve fricasseed. My love tasted of sea
and relics: the tooth of Gautama,
the finger of the Baptist,
locusts and wild honey. For its music
I punch gaps into his femur
and press this flute to my lips
to Pied Piper Hindu twinks
in Queens out of bikini briefs.
I mix rum in my milk and we suck
spirits down all Saturday night
and Jai Jagdish Hare on Sunday morning.
O Kanhaiya, O Madhav,
My father Ahiri, my mother Brahmin
now Christian carnivores.
Mixed-caste and queer-countried,
I’m untouchable, the only Mohabir left
who still scores your shlokas.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a physician and writer. Her debut story collection White Dancing Elephants (2018) is a Best Book of October/Fall in Bustle, Entertainment Weekly, New York Post, the Millions, Urban Daddy, Culture Trip, Masters Review, Hello Giggles, Bookish.com, Harper’s Bazaar, Southern Living, Huff Post, Buzz Feed News, Book Riot, Pop Matters, Vulture, and NPR.com and a Kirkus anticipated (starred) book.
1 Basavanna, “The Pot Is a God,” in Speaking of Siva, trans. A. K. Ramanujan (London: Penguin, 1973), 84.