A Conversation with Rajiv Mohabir, Kundiman Poetry Prize Winner
As we near the end of our submissions period for the Kundiman Poetry Prize (due March 15!), we asked previous winners what insight they have for future applicants looking to submit their manuscript.
Check out below what Rajiv Mohabir, whose book The Cowherd's Son was the winner of our 2015 Poetry Prize, had to say!
1) What was going through your head when you were writing the poems in the manuscript you submitted for the Poetry Prize? What were your inspirations and motivations?
I wrote the majority of the poems in The Cowherd’s Son while putting together The Taxidermist’s Cut (Four Way Books), my first book. The poems in The Cowherd’s Son focus on the religious and mythological traditions that I have inherited as a second generation Indo-Caribbean. A patchwork of Muslim, Hindu, and Christian shape the tone of this collection.
I was inspired by my Aji’s songs and stories. My poems are a kind of translation of her poetic. I attempt to cycle her songs again but from my own particular generation and idiom. I am inspired by the poems of Bhojpuri folk music, Kabir, Mirabai, Sudesh Mishra, and Rooplal Monar. American poets like Roger Sedarat, Agha Shahid Ali, Craig Santos Perez, Eduardo C. Corral, Rigoberto González, and so many others also inflect my craft decisions and my lyric impulses.
When it came to putting the manuscript together, it was Oliver de la Paz at the 2013 Kundiman retreat who told me to pull out the poems about mythology from my taxidermy poems. I couldn’t just abandon this clutch that sung of the coolie diaspora—I still felt them move me. Allison Adelle Hedge Coke sat with me on the floor of Sinclair Library at the University of Hawai‘i, Mānoa and together we stitched the poems together.
2) What are you working on now?
Right now I am working on two book manuscripts. The first is a collection of poems I call “chutney poems.” I kind of invent a formal poem based on the structure of a syncretic form of Indo-Caribbean dance/folk music to pay tribute to the oral traditions that I come from. The language is filled with triple entendre play and recklessness, crackling in and out of Guyanese Creole, Bhojpuri, and English.
My second manuscript is a memoir that I’ve tentatively titled “Antiman” that centers my transition from Orlando, Florida to Varanasi, India to New York City—together about a seven year span from when I worked as a teacher in the NYC Department of Education to when I did my MFA at Queens College. In it I write about my experiences with going to India for the first time since my ancestors left over 120 years ago, my encounters with Indo-Caribbean music, and navigating familial space as a queer.
3) What advice do you have for writers looking to submit their manuscript?
My advice to writers who are working at their first collections, is to write through rejections. Rejections are hard—still, revise and resubmit. Transform every last rejection you get into determination to edit, to push yourself harder. Keep going, reading along the way. You will learn all kinds of things about yourself along the way. The publishing world is 89% white. It’s an industry clearly stacked against writers of color, queer and trans writers, disabled writers, writers with “complicated” (read non-cisheteropatriarchal “able-bodied”) identities, etc.
Also, you are not alone. So many people say that to be a writer is to be alone. There are other writers out there who are struggling as you are. Find them. Share your work. Be open to hearing critiques. Share your favorite books. Kundiman is proof that a community can feed you along this path. Again, you are not alone.
Rajiv Mohabir is the author of The Taxidermist's Cut (Four Way Books, winner of the Intro to Poetry Prize) and The Cowherd's Son. Read more about him at www.rajivmohabir.com.