Which Flame Is Mine?: A Conversation with Rajiv Mohabir
Rajiv Mohabir is author of the poetry collections The Taxidermist’s Cut (2016) and The Cowherd’s Son (2017), winner of the Kundiman Prize. The first Indo-Guyanese poet to have published a book of poems in the United States, Mohabir is a poet of fierce intelligence, big beating heart, and an erotic and undeniable grace. His life and work traverses the globe, from India to Honolulu to Florida to New York City to Trinidad and beyond.
His poems reckon a queer, immigrant, post-colonial, and mixed-caste interaction with history, the familial, and love. Mohabir’s poetry draws from the cadences of Soca and Chutney music, roars with the voice of the hurricane, and prays its mantras and du’as as if behind a closed door.
Not long ago, we talked about The Cowherd’s Son, which he has called “a refusal of silence,” and of which poet Kimiko Hahn counsels, “Be fierce, dear reader, and join [Rajiv Mohabir] in the queer, colored diaspora that begins in the gut and continues in the heart.”
The Rumpus: In The Cowherd’s Son, the book’s first poem ends on a note of self-autonomy, strength, self-knowledge: “Mixed-caste and queer-countried,/ I’m untouchable… ,” which sets the stage for a speaker who has been released full-throated into the world. Your first collection, The Taxidermist’s Cut, thrives in large part due to its profound vulnerability. “I have never claimed to be brave,” says the speaker, who feels in the process of learning to sing. I wonder if we can begin our discussion with the space—or hinge, perhaps—between these two remarkable books. What exists there for you?
Rajiv Mohabir: I have to say that the last poem from The Taxidermist’s Cut works directly into the first poem of The Cowherd’s Son. I consider what my family lost as they were missionized in Crabwood Creek, Guyana, and then again what my family had to cast off when we moved to the United States. I had to first wade through the mire of self-loathing to transform my vulnerability into a protective exoskeleton. I envision the gaps between the two to be something like shifting a lens—what was once looking at the puncture wounds of needles stitching up hides now expands to lay bare the entire beast.
Rumpus: An “exoskeleton.” Even here, you think of the human body as animal in a figurative sense. Your first book draws from taxidermy for its central metaphor, but in The Cowherd’s Son the world often feels more literal, as do its landscapes—Guyana, New York City, Toronto, Florida, etc. Can you talk a bit about the geographic sprawl of this book?
Mohabir: The map of my own history unfolds to include all of these places where there are Caribbean people living, experiencing different kinds of colonization and resistance to cultural erasure. I have only known living in a series of multiple belongings. The places in The Cowherd’s Son are all part of my own experience of diaspora, and I wanted to show how I remember songs and stories.
Memory is messy, especially my own. My Aji told me a story from her childhood about a tiger hunting her and her mother in the Amazon. While she narrated, she sang “Kaise Bani” by Sundar Popo (a Trinidadian musician). There are no tigers in the Amazon but there were people who had the cultural memories deep in their imaginations of the Indian tiger that eats people.
In my own life, Honolulu becomes Toronto becomes Crabwood Creek becomes Barabanki, blending into one another, though each story is important to each place. I used to drive to the North Shore of O‘ahu from the south part of the island and play Sundar Popo albums as I passed fallow sugarcane fields to Wahiawa’s Sugar Mill. While at the beach I would imagine eyes hiding in the brush fringing the bay. I remember her tenement in Scarborough, Ontario, and being told a story of Guyana that reimagines India all from a beach in Hawai‘i. Every time I went to the North Shore of O‘ahu I saw eyes glinting from beneath the bushes.
I hope my collection shows this kind of complication and similar layering.
Rumpus: At the Frost Place a couple summers ago, the poet and editor Gabriel Fried gave a talk in which he mentioned the reluctance of some readers to engage with a poem or book of poems when it requires any kind of research off the page. I recall that he said this with a bit of disappointment, and I feel similarly when a student of mine, for example, will claim that a poem needs to do all the work on the page. I strongly disagree, and your work is a great example of the pleasures and rewards of going “off the page” in order for a full appreciation of your poems. For example, I now know that a shloka is the meter of epic Indian poetry. I now know that Guyana was once called “El Dorado” by English colonialists/pirates, but that Guyana, in fact, turned out to have little gold. Can you weigh in on this debate concerning paratext versus text, or what is “on the page” versus “off the page”? I’m interested in the cultural ramifications of the questions, in your work and elsewhere.
Mohabir: This question consumes me, especially as The Cowherd’s Son is released into the world. How much research or going “off the page” can I ask of my reader? I always err on the side of complexity. If a word or symbol can point to some other reality, some other time and vibrancy and it is relevant to the poem, it adds another layer.
When I was an MFA student, a classmate suggested I remove all Hindi words, place names, and familial relationships because he (a cis white man) could not understand the poem. Sunu Chandy, another classmate, spoke up and said, “These are real people and real places. People actually talk like this.”
When it comes to the inclusion of Bhojpuri or Hindi in my poems, I cannot help but read racism and xenophobia into it. I do not think that by making my work more palatable for American audiences by erasing all South Asian and Caribbean references, or somehow defining them in the poem, will make my poem better. I think removing specific words and phrases flattens poetry. The world is a big place with so many different kinds of experiences—and so is the United States. This complexity is already a part of the American literary landscape. What I mean here is that I do not want to sanitize my experience, or act as a cultural informant who is completely decontextualized from the first home space. I want my nuances of language and line to interact in their postcolonial, hybrid, intersectional, and queer capacities.
When writing my poems I like to go “off the page” and sometimes excerpt from scientific lexicons and academic articles. I have never heard anyone complain that the poet writes too much science into the text, but write one word of a non-English language and entire collections of poetry become “inaccessible” and “niche.” This irony is laughable, yes, but also very telling about the politics of literary spaces.
Rumpus: Looking even more closely at The Cowherd’s Son, there are some fascinating recurrences of imagery. For all the richness and nuance of the book, you often return to images of vessels: alembics, diyas, copper urns, a “bowl of bone”—and the body is a vessel, of course, as are poems. Have you noticed the prevalence of these kinds of images?
Mohabir: I have to say, the recurrence of vessels in my work is subconscious. I see them when they appear, for sure, but I wonder why I am haunted with being filled, or filling them. I know that there are some connections in Indian poetry between the clay diya and the human body. I’ve spent a lot of my life feeling pretty empty. I wanted to be filled. So in many ways growing up in Florida (and now as I return writing to you from my mother’s table) I was waiting to be whole, passively, for someone external to me to tell me who I was or what I should be. I wanted to be white—I wanted to fit in. There were so many small denials of self that became habit. In some ways, I wanted to understand what songs and stories mortared my bones—what triumphs had the people who make up my body gone through? What about all the failures?
I think one of the greatest triumphs of writing for my community’s history is that I get to be active in filling others’ pots with oil, imagining a world that yields to wonder while acknowledging survivors of injustice and indenture—creating a new future with my own dreaming. The impermanence of all things comforts and unsettles me. I fill diyas with mustard oil, wind a wick of cotton and light it. I know darkness comes to swallow the flame, how after the light burns all the oil and leaves scorch marks on the clay, the hand molded lamp then breaks down again into dust. But once there was a light and it burned for others to fill more clay lamps. Which flame is mine?
Believing that this body is a clay pot derives not only from South Asian poetics, but also represents my spirituality. My poems are also small vessels that try to contain a similar spark. I am happy that more and more people from my community are being acknowledged for the work that they are doing.
Rumpus: I love how when discussing your own work you keep returning to the work of others, your “community.” I think of The Rumpus as a kind of community, and I would like to hear your thoughts on The Rumpus’s “Inaugural Poem Project,” which launched in the days before the inauguration of Donald Trump as president. Regarding your poem, in particular, “Inaugural Poem,” I’m struck again by the geographic sprawl of it, as it travels from Florida to Wyoming to North Carolina to Honolulu. What are the pressures and rewards of writing this poem-in-the-moment?
Mohabir: Some folks think that there were more attacks against queers and people of color, more violences perpetrated, more visceral and palpable racism since the election. I do not believe so. Black and brown bodies have been and are still threatened by American institutional racism. I think that systemic and aggressive racism is a reality of living in the United States that many people and poets have been resisting for a very long time. In my poem I wanted to show the simultaneity of various oppressions throughout the United States and connect them in a constellation.
After the election, I called my mother right away and told her not to leave her home in New Smyrna Beach for a couple of days. After 9/11 she called me pleading that I not leave my house in Gainesville, Florida, because she knew the deal. She knew that brown bodies are all lumped into the category “Threatening.” She knew that our bodies would be hunted, that we would be attacked in our churches, mandirs, and masjids. These emboldened racists were my neighbors, my classmates, strangers at the gas stations—everywhere.
When I wrote the poem, I was also responding to the racist graffiti found in both my high school in Oviedo, FL, and university in Honolulu. I was shocked back into childhood. I remembered the stink of fear that I grew up with in Chuluota, Florida: racist teachers, “friends,” and classmates who denied the existence of racism. But to see it in Honolulu where I was living at the time?
I looked around and saw my community of queers of color and how we all have been surviving and resisting erasure in the face of a racist America. I wanted to rewrite the conversation I had with my brown, immigrant mother. I had to write down what I was thinking. I wanted to put down my rawest feelings in the moment of how I felt support from others. I did not care if anyone read my ramblings. I wrote the poem for my family. I wrote it privately. I did not need to make it “beautiful,” I just had to be honest to my complicated feelings. Then Brian Spears asked me if I had a response. And I did have one, so I sent it to him. I felt terrified and hopeful and others did too. Reading the weekly poems was like Sunday school. Poets speaking truth to power—this is a community I want to be a part of forever.
Rumpus: We have focused on your poetry, but you also studied Hindi at the American Institute for Indian Studies in Jaipur in order to begin translating poems. I have a deep admiration for poets who also translate the poems of others. Can you talk a bit about your work as a translator?
Mohabir: Hawai‘i is the place where I completed my translation of Holi Songs of Demerara by Lalbihari Sharma. Gaiutra Bahadur writes about this text in her book Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. When she asked if I would like to translate the full document, I very enthusiastically agreed. The collection, originally written in 1916, will be released in 2018 from Kaya Press. Since Hawai‘i is an illegally occupied nation that has a history of plantation exploitation and settler colonialism, translating this text in particular showed me how my own experiences of colonization resonate with this archipelago in the Pacific.
I was in Jaipur from 2011-2012 on a fellowship where I studied Hindi and the poetry of Kabir. It was the second of such programs that I did—the first was through the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s College Year in India Program (2003-2004) that took me to Varanasi. There I studied folk songs and the Hindi and Bhojpuri languages to better understand my grandparents’ language.
I was desperate to know what my Aji sang in a language I did not understand. She was unlettered yet a library of ballads and epics. Since no one in my generation understood her stores of music, each verse would be lost—devoured by a colonial monster. So I translated, collecting as many of her songs as I could. She sang for me and I recorded them, learned the lexically fluid words, and wrote them into fixed poems in English. When I was in India I wanted to connect the dots—did anyone in India sing like my Guyanese Aji?
I encountered many similar folksongs and stories performed on the streets, enlivened by instruments on altars, at the ghats. Hearing the familiar words was like being in my living room, Aji lamenting exile and forecasting return. This is the poetry that I come from, music in the rice fields, in cane fields, through broken and missing teeth. The songs are not beautiful, they devastate with their unrelenting emotion. Aji sang about no longer being invited into her mother and father’s home. She sang of betrayal, of humbled kings. Translation gave me back her heartbreak and joy. I was exiled from my Aji’s language. Translation ferries me back home.
Rumpus: Congratulations on the forthcoming book of Lalbihari Sharma translations! Can we close here with a hint of any other current and future projects?
Mohabir: I am presently working on another collection of poems, tentatively titled Cutlish. These will be my chutney poems written in and out of Guyanese Bhojpuri/Caribbean Hindi, Guyanese Creole, and (North) American English. I have designed the form based loosely on Sundar Popo’s song that I mentioned before, “Kaise Bani.” I wanted a form for a poetry that speaks to Indo-Caribbean culture and heritage. Since representation in the world of United States poetry is only starting to burgeon (I have a cousin, Divya Persaud, who just won the Editor’s Choice Award from The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective!), I think part of my work is to reflect possibility to other poets who, if they are anything like I was, suffer from a limitation of imagination. I never thought it was possible to have even one book out in the world.
Author photograph © Charmila Ajmera.