“‘To take control of my own narrative and history’: A Conversation with Rajiv Mohabir & a Folio of New Poems” – curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Rajiv Mohabir is the author of The Cowherd’s Son (Tupelo Press 2017, winner of the 2015 Kundiman Prize; Eric Hoffer Honorable Mention 2018) and The Taxidermist’s Cut (Four Way Books 2016, winner of the Four Way Books Intro to Poetry Prize, Finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry in 2017). His book of translations I Even Regret Night: Holi Songs of Demerara (1916) is recently out with Kaya Press in November, 2018. His poems appear in Best American Poetry, POETRY, New England Review, Kenyon Review, and Quarterly West. He received his MFA in Poetry and Translation from at Queens College, CUNY and his PhD in English from the University of Hawai`i. Currently he is an Assistant Professor of poetry at Auburn University and translations editor at Waxwing Journal. Read more about him at www.rajivmohabir.com


Kristina Marie Darling:  Thank you so much for taking the time to discuss your poetry with Tupelo Quarterly.  In corresponding with you, one thing that I’m struck by is that each poem, and each narrative, is essentially an act of reading, a response to and deconstruction of the work that came before one’s one.  Could you say more about the texts, both artistic and archival, that inspired these pieces?

Rajiv Mohabir:  Thank you so much for reading my work and making time to ask me these questions! I am so happy to be included in this new issue of Tupelo Quarterly. The “chutney poem” is based on the music of Sundar Popo, especially his song “Kaise Bani,” which was a family favorite as I was growing up. I thought about a form that would be able to bear the witness and resistance that this kind of syncretic music does. Lyrically, chutney music blends Bhojpuri folk customs with its new Caribbean context. I wanted to write a poem that was rooted in this musical tradition.

And then something broke in me. I was living in Richmond Hill when I wrote most of the chutney poems in my forthcoming collection. I would be walking down Liberty Avenue under the A train, in and out of roti shops when the mukras, the Guyanese Bhojpuri choruses, would come to me, almost like I was being guided to write them.

Sundar Popo’s music as well as Dropati’s I see as postcolonial poetry that has no representation in translation projects in North America. In fact, since my own Aji was unlettered, I thought of the importance of the oral in shaping my own sense of self. How could I forget the importance of this music of my home space? I blend Kamau Brathwaite’s study on nation language and speaking with the “voice of the hurricane,” Guyanese Creole, Bhojpuri, and Standard English to show a similar crossroads that chutney music exemplifies in its instrumentation, lyrics, and performance.

One of the written literary influences in the poem “We Came In Planes” is that of Mahadai Das who wrote “They Came In Ships” which was done in homage of those indentured laborers who were carted to the Caribbean to work the sugar cane fields of the British Empire. Here is a link to her poem and a brief positioning that I wrote about it in Jacket2 in the Coolitude project that I worked on. This poem, important to my community, shows the suffering of our ancestors as well as the continuance of their descendants’ spirits.

I wanted to write a new, queer version that spoke to my own existence in the United States and the new kinds of racialization and rascims that we endure in this new context. And now, even today in Opelika, Alabama—the town I presently live in—there are confederate monuments keeping watch over us. I wanted to include a poem that celebrates the brave young folks who pulled one down in Durham, North Carolina.

KMD:  Your book, Cutlish, is forthcoming from Tupelo Press, and we couldn’t be more excited to share this excerpt.  How did this project emerge out of the innovative and archival work of your second book, The Cowherd’s Son?  To what extent do you see the poem as life-work, a recurring site of engagement?

RM:  I am so excited for Cutlish to come out! Thank you for this. Cutlish grows out of The Cowherd’s Son as a kind of deepening of voice. There are aspects to my own diasporic life that I delve into and there are characters that emerge in this text as I move evermore into queer circles. I see Cutlish as evidencing a very specific time in my life when I was active in the queer Indo-Caribbean communities in Queens, New York. It at once celebrates this life that thrives despite, as well as shows the dangers of intersections both of positionality and of the highways in the city.

As far as the archive is concerned, it was through much research into my own familial past that I was able to piece together the histories of certain expressions, words, and legends. In the manuscript I have a section that deals with this archive explicitly. I ask the question of what it means to not rely on a colonizer’s documentation but to also mine that affective archive of the ancestral to develop an approach to writing poems that regards oral ways of keeping histories just as rigorous as those that are written down.

By doing so I have engaged with my grandmother’s vocabulary, academic studies on Guyanese Bhojpuri language that were done in the 1980s in my father’s own village in Guyana, and other arts that are available to me. A large part of this collection centers language attrition and extinction—my own family’s loss of Guyanese Bhojpuri occurred in my parents’ generation as three of my grandparents all spoke Guyanese Bhojpuri as a first language. English was the language of Empire thus the language of economic survival. I was lucky enough to learn as much as I could from my grandmother and this archive appears in these poems as well.

I see the trajectory of these poems actually deepening a kind of life-work engagement. I don’t know if I am able to separate these two parts of life since even living as a queer POC in the United States as constant complication and struggle. To understand my history on my own is a way for me to take control of my own narrative and history and to learn how to sing the songs that will heal the damage inflicted on and felt by my ancestors that I feel today.

KMD:  Your work is marked by a remarkable formal dexterity, and these new poems are no exception.  When sequencing a manuscript, what does the movement between forms make possible for you?  How has that interplay between forms unfolded thus far in your manuscript?

RM:  Thank you, again! When it came to organizing this collection I was a little scared of having all of the poems written only in one form. It works for Agha Shahid Ali’s (posthumous) Call Me Ishmael Tonight, for Yusef Komunyakaa’s Talking Dirty to the Gods, and more recently to Terrence Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassins. It’s a species of daring that I tried and read and reread. I tested it out on a couple of friends and I got the answer that I was expecting: reading chutney poem after chutney poem can be grueling and does not allow each poem to gleam as it should due to the linguistic and stylistic density.

In order for Cutlish to flow I needed some tension and release and I saw this working through the inclusion of the various forms that I work with. There are of course, chutney poems, prose pieces, poems in single stanzas, and even an experimental curse-poem that appears in Book of Curses by Asian American Literary Review.

I see this a way of adding dimension and texture to the thematic thrusts of this collection—I am able to achieve more, push harder into the various ways that colonization has really affected me and the communities that I am a part of and apart from. I also wanted to provide a respite for the reader so as not to exhaust them as they from poem to poem. In doing so there may be more of a cyclical feeling that arises. I’ve had a few friends read this collection and have been given some pretty valuable feedback that I’ve interpreted and edited for.

KMD:  I admire the way that poetic technique and social justice are inextricably linked in your body of work.  Can you say more about how style in poetry, and the behavior of the language itself, is politically charged?

RM:  This is something that I have been thinking a lot about lately: how do political decisions affect aesthetic ones? Isn’t it really telling that in the United States that to believe in justice and equality is to be termed “radical?” Yes, I want everyone to be able to eat enough, daily and this makes me radical. I believe that queers should be allowed human dignity, and this makes me radical. I believe that racism as it’s practiced in the hearts and laws of this country should be examined and that people should strive to eradicate their practice of white supremacy and this makes me radical. I don’t have a choice to not live these politics in my daily life, same goes for my poems. My aesthetic practice directly links into my experience.

One of the very simple ways that I think that social justice and poetry exist together in my work is based not only in form but content. My writing at all is revolutionary. I have been called terrorist, faggot, pansy, backwards, etc. by folks aggressively as well as the biased bigoted treatment I have received from them that is harder to enumerate. The act of claiming space in North America, for me, has been about creating platforms and holding my people up, whoever and wherever they may be.

As for the style of poetry and language itself being politically charged, I fall in the camp that believes every decision is political. Which language gets the stage? is a political question. Is Guyanese Creole a language worth of literary merit? is a political question. Can I reclaim my familiy’s dead language? is a political question.

The good thing about manipulating form is the space that it can create for multilingual writing. By refusing the erasure and silence that American forces onto immigrants and immigrant communities, I sing a poetry that can be used to uplift and claim space. I think also, the fact of my writing and having non-US based referents in both language use and form can challenge the US-centric logic of poetry in the country. I refuse to stay in my lane and will make a big sound until more people feel like joining me in our noise making.

KMD:  You are a gifted poet, but also, you have developed an impressive following for your work on social media and in the literary community more generally.  What advice do you have for poets who may be shepherding a first book or chapbook into the world?  What are some strategies these poets can keep in mind when building an audience for their work?

RM:  I think the most valuable piece of advice that I was given was by poet and writer Rigoberto González, echoed by the poet and writer Craig Santos Perez. They said in order to build your platform as a poet write essays and review other poets’ books. This way you are participating in a community of writers by contributing. I took this to heart especially while I was living in Hawai‘i and trying to launch my first book on the American continent. I would pass this on to others: read generously and broadly. Buy books. Support other poets by showing up for them through reviews. Haters will do their dharma—

Another thing I would add is to write the poetry that you are convicted to write. Do not try to sanitize your voice or even your language, for that matter. There is no rush everyone seems to say. There is no timeline that you need to conform to. Do this on your own schedule. If poems want to take incarnation through you, then surrender to them. It’s all magic. Remember to be kind to others and to be kind to yourself. What do you want to put out into the world?

KMD:  What are you currently working on?  What can readers anticipate and look forward to?

RM:  I have a collection of translations forthcoming from Kaya Press in November called I Even Regret Night: Holi Songs of Demerara originally written by a former indentured laborer in Guyana in 1916. Here’s a link.

It documents life on the plantations and offers a look into a South Asian spirituality in transition in its new diaspora. Gaiutra Bahadur wrote about it in her 2013 Coolie Woman: the Odyssey of Indenture. I am so happy to have this out in the world!

Currently I am working on revising a collection of essays that I’ve titled “Scars of Empire: Coolitude Vocabularies and Writing Prompts” that blends my Coolitude project with Jacket2 with other essays that I have written in the last several years. I’m excited by this foray into nonfiction and see it as a deepening of my poetry.

I have also started work on a manuscript of a retelling of the Ramayana based on my original translations of Guyanese Bhojpuri and Indian Bhojpuri folksongs that I collected as well as transcriptions of the oral Ramayana that my Aji used to tell me. I had the foresight as a twenty-year old to record her words and am blessing up the Rajiv of 2002. I am so excited by this project because it’s very specific to my family and my father’s village.

My mother’s father was a scholar or Ramayana but my uncle who has recordings does not want me to include any of his words so as not to “taint” the original meanings of what my Nana intended. I read this to be both casteist (that side of the family is upper casted, and my father’s side is low casted) and homophobic, based on my mother’s own explanation of why I am disallowed this archive. My Ramayana will be about radical equality and the actual eradication of injustice including homo and transphobia, religious oppressions, racism, misogyny, etc.

And of course there are more poems! I am working on a trilogy that chart movements of humpback whales, the natural history and evolution of whale species, and current ecological threats to them in their underwater habitats. This was originally a dissertation project but it has taken me some time to pull apart the various threads into cohesive, independent sections/collections.


A Folio of Poems by Rajiv Mohabir


Kristina Marie Darling is the author of thirty books, including Look to Your Left: The Poetics of Spectacle (Akron Poetry Series, forthcoming in 2020) and DARK HORSE: Poems (C&R Press, 2018). Her work has been recognized with awards from Yaddo, the American Academy in Rome, the Whiting Foundation, and the Academy of American Poets. Kristina currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Press and Tupelo Quarterly, an opinion columnist at The Los Angeles Review of Books, a contributing writer at Publishers Weekly, and a freelance book critic at The New York Times Book Review.