Rajiv Mohabir interview with John Hoppenthaler
First, Rajiv, allow me to congratulate you on a significant, even astonishing run of great poetry news! During the past several years, you’ve received the 2014 Intro Prize in Poetry by Four Way Books for your first full-length collection The Taxidermist’s Cut (Spring, 2016); the 2015 AWP Intro Journal Award; the 2015 Kundiman Prize for The Cowherd’s Son (Tupelo Press); and a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant. You’ve also been working on your dissertation project which I imagine will amount to your third full manuscript of poems. That’s quite a roll. As you work toward finishing up your PhD in English from the University of Hawai`i, dude, you’re pretty set up! Are you thinking much about how you can bring these achievements to bear as you move beyond the PhD?
Thank you! It all feels so surreal. I can hear the voice of Nicole Cooley advising me at Queens, “Someone wins these prizes, you may as well submit.” I just never thought that this would all come to fruition. I mean, the academy seems filled with so many beautiful voices; I am in disbelief that mine might actually contribute.
My hope in studying poetry and translation has been to cultivate a practice of writing where I allow myself the time and energy to make poems. I worked as a teacher in the New York City public schools and thought that it in order to be a decent teacher I needed to have a living passion in my life—that’s when I decided to apply for the MFA at Queens College. This turned out to be my first step into that direction: making poetry a focus in my life. It’s taken a long time to make poems that people want to read, and I am still learning how to do so.
I eventually left the Department of Education to pursue my PhD in Hawai‘i, as it’s a PhD in English with a creative dissertation. There is also a Hindi program here, which I thought would be invaluable to my desire to translate from and write in Hindi and Bhojpuri. It turned out to be the perfect place to further my study into intersections of coloniality and identity.
As for my goals after my PhD is completed, I would like to chase the White Whale of a tenure track position at a university teaching creative writing, translation, queer and postcolonial literatures. The fun bit about it all is that I’ve already allowed myself complete indulgence into my scariest of hauntings and greatest of joys.
We’re thrilled to be able to include poems from all three of these manuscripts. It seems clear that, like Natasha Trethewey, say, one of your big themes has to do with identity, and it’s complicated. Can you talk about this theme in your work, generally, as well as other themes we can see in your work and give us a sense as to what you see that might distinguish between these three manuscripts of poetry, perhaps with specific references to the poems featured here?
I remember I once asked Kimiko Hahn if she thought it was boring that I wrote about identity so much. She said “You’re a gay, South Asian from the Caribbean—why would you ever stop? It’s fabulous.” I took her words as “permission” to write about my identities.
What separates the first two manuscripts is scope. The Taxidermist’s Cut is a book that charts the way that violence is internalized and how the speaker enacts various violences upon himself. It deals with a cultural identity of being diasporic, queer, and in a Central Florida that lacked diversity. I’ve taken books on taxidermy, shredded them, and made new poems from their fragments of silken fur. The poem “Ritual” focuses on the speaker’s enacting this violence through self-harm and sexuality.
As in the poem “Canis lupus lupus,” I write about another form of a queer identity that expands past “diaspora” and into legibility in American patterns of racialization. What I mean here is that “Indians”—immigrants and their children from the subcontinent didn’t recognize my family as “Indian” since we’ve been living outside of India for at least 120 years. That’s five generations. The notion of what makes an “Indian” has changed dramatically since 1890. National borders shifted, new ethnicities were created and some, destroyed. As someone who is inter-caste, and coming from an inter-caste culture where notions of purity are challenged daily, my “new-ness” also queers notions of wholeness.
The Cowherd’s Son looks more directly at my caste identities, the Indian diaspora in the Caribbean, and familial relationships that are complicated more than the personal, but are metonymic for a cultural belonging. In the poem “Blind Man’s Whist” I hope to illustrate a history into diaspora that centers Indian contracted labor. The original agreement was after working the sugar cane fields for five years the British would return the workers to India—yet this promise became too expensive to uphold. People remained in the colony and were forced (again) to hack out a new existence.
Of my other projects I can say my MFA thesis was an altogether separate—and I say project here deliberately, knowing that it’s kind of a bad word in the word of poetry and books of poems. I took to the streets of Richmond Hills, the site of an Indo-Caribbean community, and developed a form of poem that suits my cultural landscape.
My dissertation will be a collection of poems that charts the historical journey of queer indentured laborers who traveled from India to Guyana as well as the personal: my own journey through cultural identities and surviving homophobias. I hope to put into conversation queer migration under Indian indenture (1838-1917), the whaling industry, and contemporary homophobic and racist violences.
The poem “Balaenoptera musculus musculus” speaks of spirituality—how sometimes we don’t know the mechanics of song, and how they are not important when we realize that we are vehicles for music. I feel like writing about spirituality is somewhat of a taboo, but here I do it trans-species-ly. I am interested in the languages we don’t have access to but can feel nonetheless.
I was browsing through a profile of you from your days in the Queens College MFA program, and your young life represents as wildly diverse and eclectic. The piece reveals you, in that timeframe, as a “poet, fifth-grade teacher, graduate student, dancer, adventurous cook, and creator of videos,” as a person for whom “Languages and sacred stories, rivers and oceans, the Diaspora of [your] Christian/Hindu family, and the migration of humpback whales” are fascinating, that you were born in London of artistic Guyanese-Indian parents, and grew up in Queens, NY, Niagara Falls, and central Florida. And now you live in Hawai`i, where, as you state on your web page, you write “about colonial era anti-sodomy laws, plastic, and humpback whales.” You have as rich a stew of landscape and cultural reference from which to draw as anyone. I imagine that you might be able to attribute your prolificacy to this wealth of experience? How does this all manifest itself in your poetry? Would you say that your poetry finds life within the confluence of one or more of these interests?
I like the many places I can claim to have been influenced by in my migration story. It’s taken a long time for me to see beauty in my particular assemblages of identities. When I was younger I wanted an uncomplicated narrative, something easy and accessible so others could read me like a text. It was after I stopped praying to be white, to fit the norm, that I was able to envision life by using many eyes. My background has everything to do with the way I make sense of the world. I think that writing is a way I could allow for these multiple identities to exist together.
I am able to allow for complications in my life by not having to hold them all inside. After they are written down and put together, a new dialogue emerges—one of upheaval and unity. Having them down on paper as poems allows for this tension of multiple ways of seeing things. In this way the poems may or may not cohere outside of my having written them, or maybe that’s enough—to be wrought from the same queer pool of raw materials.
I think of Lord Shiva in this moment. He is the lord of paradoxes and he holds them in his throat. Since I’m not even close to being a metaphor for a god, I blue the paper with the things I can and can’t be. In the samsara, the world, of the poem anything is permissible—time and space don’t have the same materiality; I am able to collapse Varanasi (India), Crabwood Creek (Guyana), London (England and Canada), and New York into one place: that of my body.
Living and writing in Hawai‘i has definitely started to shape the way I engage with notions of occupation and coloniality. It’s a place that’s illegally occupied by the United States and native Hawaiians are under constant threat of erasure—both physical and epistemological. In this situation I am able to harmonize my familial history of cultural exploitation and erasure to what is happening in Hawai‘i. I like to think of ways to ally, to fight for what is right. I am drawn to the humpback whale as it is both migratory and musical, once highly endangered. It sings its songs while travelling over 5,160 miles each year. It survives.
As if this were not enough output, you have also distinguished yourself as a translator, receiving a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for your translation of Lalbihari Sharma’s Holi Songs of Demerara. Published in 1916, this collection of folksongs is the only known literary work to be written by an indentured Indo-Caribbean writer. What drew you to this project, and how has the process of translating affected (if at all) your own poetry?
I see works of Indo-Caribbean music as one of my poetic influences. Lalbihari Sharma is a poetic ancestor. I was made aware of this text by Gaiutra Bahadur, author of Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. She approached me and asked if I would be interested in translating this collection of Phaags, or chautal songs. I jumped at the chance. This was an opportunity for me to work with a collection of poems that was written during the Indo-Caribbean origin story.
I first started translating my Aji’s (my father’s mother’s) Guyanese Bhojpuri folksongs into English as an anthropological exercise in my undergraduate studies. I didn’t see the problem with trying to make her words into “artifacts” until I thought about the velocity that they could achieve if my translations were infused with the same vim as poetry. That’s when I started thinking about the text of Caribbean Hindi folksongs as living poems. These poems tell of life in my Aji’s generation, shifting ideologies and worldviews; illuminating the process of Creolization, surviving colonialism and remaining whole.
Translation is no longer an act of synonym replacement; it becomes a migration of worldview from one language to another. Since my parents, my brother and sister, and my niece and nephews do not speak Hindi or Bhojpuri (except for the bad words), I see my role as a translator not as an academic or a poet, but a custodian, as a caretaker. I want to link my future to my past. This is a personal stake with real life implications of cultural erasure. If I allow my generation to forget our stories (I have had the luck and resources to be able to relearn my languages) then I have not been a good steward.
Sharma’s work was the first that was published as a text and the metaphors that he uses for labor, loss, and longing have never been foreign to me. In fact, I see much of the same poetic enduring today in contemporary chutney music. In this way I see myself in this artistic and poetic trajectory. I have been educated in the West and have had to relearn Bhojpuri and Hindi yet find my acts of personal decolonization (writing poems) to be a way to reestablish a connection with and to start speaking to my ancestors. We speak from different times and places, yet my physical body is made of their bones and tissue.
Because my wife, Christy, is an elementary school ESL teacher, I’d be interested to know more about your experiences as a fifth grade ESL school teacher in Corona, Queens. What brought you to teaching there, and is it something you’d consider doing again? Did you find yourself able to bring poetry to the process, and did the teaching have any influence on your work as a poet and/or translator?
Teaching ESL was a way that I wanted to undo the harm of English language done to my own family. I worked in Bushwick, BK, Corona and Richmond Hill, Queens during my seven years as a public school teacher. I was a New York City Teach Fellow from 2006-2008. I heard about this program from a friend of mine who was an immigrant rights activist in Massachusetts and since I wanted to do some politically active work I decided to apply. Since New York is one of, if not the most, linguistically diverse places in the world I thought being there to be essential.
Poetry found its way into my English lessons for sure. When I taught fifth grade (2008-2011) my class organized a poetry slam that acted as test preparation for the state exams. The state exams suck the souls out of children. They are high stakes and simply unfair and awful. We would study poetic devices and use them to talk about immigration and other topics close to the hearts of the students.
Because of this program’s efficacy and high student engagement, the administration asked me to do a workshop for the teachers to show them ways to teach poetry. I made a handout about helpful strategies that they could take home and read on their own time. Instead, I decided to use the instructional time to make the teachers experience writing poetry of their own, so that if the experience proved moving they would understand its inherent power. This proved a success! This is when I discovered that not only do I like to write poetry, I also love to teach it.
You have revealed that “When walking the beach with my nephew, I am able to summon sea creatures.” An extraordinary superpower, to be sure, and it seems that, for you as for me, the beach is a special place where you are able to summon poetry along with metaphorical sea creatures. What is it about the shore that spurs your work, this magic?
I grew up frequenting the beach and find myself always drawn to the water. I seek it out, or it seeks me out. Because of this, I am really good at spotting animals like whales, dolphins, rays, sharks, manatee, etc. Like being at the beach with my nephews and niece, Taylor, Devin, and Lily, we know that in looking for these animals one must exercise extraordinary patience. It’s kind of like writing a poem. It takes time for the poem to breach the surface, to reveal its beautiful brown skin to the writer. And when it does I am present in my body. This is magic, this being present.
I could say that the ocean represents all things that are both unknown and known subconsciously, or that it is the originator of life—the closest physical manifestation of the creator god. I could say that I never feel more whole than when I am in the ocean, having grown up by water, having my entire migration story happen through crossing seas. I could say the sea is the site of trauma and great blessing. I could say something about how we are made up of saline.
Everything I could say about the ocean I could say for poetry too.
Last words are yours! What would you like to leave us thinking about?
In my mind writing and translating are acts of survival—not just of keeping a poetic in tact, but a way to keep living. There’s a Bhojpuri folksong for every event in one’s life. I want to re-cycle the songs and have them incarnate in my own lived experiences. It’s my version of singing down the future: taking the words of my ancestors and having them sing, now in a different idiom.
I often wonder what my ancestors would think of my life, how far removed I am from what they knew. I live in the most remote island chain in the world—in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I can read and write, something relatively new in my family: my dad’s generation being the first in his family to read and write and my grandparents on my mother’s side.
Would they recognize me if they read my writing? Would they recognize themselves? I hope these poems and translations to be way of no longer remaining strangers to one another despite sharing a genes. I’ve started a project of retranslating East Indian protest songs from Guyana back into Bhojpuri and Hindi. The original versions of the songs were lost to the person that collected them, and all that remains is the English translations.
Even relearning these songs is a journey through my complete migration history. I have to sail from an English remnant back into Hindi and Bhojpuri—an act similar to tracing my genealogy.
Canis lupus lupus
“…every culture is first and foremost national.”
–The Wretched of the Earth, Franz Fanon
Once an India-man in Florida said,
Guyanese aren’t real Indians.
You stand before a mirror,
what glass won’t distort
your image? Even the eye’s lens
twists coyotes into wolves
one hundred twenty-five years
outside the desh. Orientalists
well documented the grey wolf
for associations with affluence.
Do you expect others to see
nuances speckling your pelt when
your coolie mother can’t tell
Gujarati from Punjabi? Put on
your janitor coat and some
think you a doctor. Coming
to the States, your own parents
didn’t have the right papers, caste,
or ship passes. You are a coyote
in wolf’s clothes. Your father warns,
Desis will reject you; the temple
pack will extirpate the untouchable.
To them West Indian means
palaces, rubies, samosas; to your
Chuluota pelt it’s Aji’s gold
teeth, kitchen Creole, two spoons
of ice-cream in your sweet rice.
You’re a pro at peripheral. Years after
you are cities apart,
you meet up your first boyfriend
for coffee and gin. He convinces you
to park in the Methodist’s lot,
to undo your jeans. You spit out
teenage sacrament on the pavement. Watch
the lips close. Repeat. Repeat.
It goes like this:
you will hate yourself until
you push your arms through
your orange long-sleeve
and withdraw the marble box
from the dark. Inside is a sword.
Inside is a mantra that calls
blood to the skin
you never asked for. Repeat.
it cover over, the lips of your arm
In the bar you drown
in scotch haze;
the man opposite you will blaze
in your throat when his denim
and leather are a nest
calling birds to their weaving:
from the pile on your floorboards.
You no longer cut as a child cuts.
It’s morning and you swallow
the sun’s fever but not its light.
Outside your brother’s pastor rains brimstone:
your tongue will rot
in your mouth; flames
will crack your bones into Psalms.
It’s Christmas. It’s polarity:
a chasm within
so large you don’t remember
Blind Man’s Whist
Play your hand of loss, in fact,
your deck was glass, now
it’s in slivers. Any cutlass deal
will cost an eye. Think of it:
your color is the One-eyed Jack’s,
either a spade or red-skinned
after the sun’s molten gold casts
you into a new caste. You are sick
of being broken, every metaphor
for you is one of soldered pieces,
a wistful colony-memory of a once
promised return: a 19th century
pirate game you learned in the dark,
taught by your father: suicidal
king wagering your mother’s gold
teeth for a trick and re-signs
an indenture contract, forfeits
return passage for this Skeldon paddy field.
The gamble is you never see
your own assets, you try to drown
yourself in rum, stuffing English
into your mouth and still allow
magistrates to fill you with silence.
Guyana was called El Dorado
because of the promise of gold,
but it was empty. El Dorado
is a promise of rum, that soon
your hand will trump all others,
and you will clear the table with one
knock from your arm and pull
your brothers up to dance while one
selects a chantey from the jukebox
hacking a settlement in the corner.
O gods of ash,
I have found you and am not of you.
This mask of clay will smash
against the river stones and I will sail
Snow Moon into the pollution of years
of broken sutras, a wreckage
of browned marigolds at the throats of used up
idols and burnt out clay lamps.
O gods of brass. O gods of burns
then sandalwood paste,
Hear me. I was once as you are. Fixed
to a base or brushed in camel hair,
lips parted, prayers caught
as vireos smoldering in my throat.
O gods of today, of broken things,
some things misplaced where they belong;
gristle and shell fall away.
A macaw flies from its cage
in midtown Manhattan, unaccustomed to sky:
a rainbow streak.
Fading and sharpening link
into steady raga. A man pours
oil into wine from the beak of his askos.
My own joy: a sun in my chest.
O clay gods, o gods of phase,
may you singe your own sky.
Balaenoptera musculus musculus
Earth’s biggest animal shares
its nomenclature with the mouse,
which means their every note
gives muscular song, wails, a small notion
here weighing one hundred
and seventy tons, which means
this moves you. I tell you
this clay dome bears a sea of light
where a simple pinprick and a nova bursts,
swallowing any shadow or chimera.
It’s pneumatically driven
membrane vibrations oscillate
air from larynx to cranial sinuses
to orchestrate a score. But
the question remains, why call out
without phonic lips, the staff
and ledger lines blank, free of treble?
You are built for music: a viola strung
with fiber and filament. It’s how blue whales
voice the loudest song, not from deep
muscle, but from sliding breath:
a second nature that echoes blues, grace-
noting from extinction to a choral body.