A Conversation with Rajiv Mohabir, 2015 Kundiman Poetry Prize Winner

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Nadine Santoro, Kundiman's fall 2017 Communications Intern, interviews Rajiv Mohabir. Rajiv won the 2015 Kundiman Poetry Prize Winner for The Cowherd's Son.

I've had the pleasure of hearing you read your poetry twice now, and I've noticed that, while many of your poems are multilingual, your tone always conveys so much of the meaning of words your audience might not understand. Do you find yourself writing poems that are meant to be spoken aloud?

Thank you for listening to me read! It’s wonderful to be heard. I’ve been considering this a lot lately. It seems more and more that people are saying that hearing my poem aloud makes the blend of languages easier to follow. I think about how I came to poetry as a kind of way of understanding the distance between page and sound. By translating folk songs to make their meanings available to my family and community I rooted myself in the iterated, in the sung, in the voice. It makes sense to me, emotionally that I in reading this kind of sensibility results. In my home space as a child there was a flurry of linguistic registers and languages spoken, complete with song—an uncle bursts into calypso while talking, a sister reprimanding me in Creole, a mother singing the tune of a Bollywood film while working.

What power there is in speaking and in writing all of our brown tongues.

You hold a number of degrees: a PhD in English, an MFA in poetry and translation, a MSEd in teaching English to speakers of other languages, and a BA in religious studies. As an English, creative writing, and theology student myself, I'm interested in how these disciplines overlap in your life—personally, intellectually, and especially in your writing.

I have never thought of these things as disconnected—in fact the music I came to poetry from was religious/cultural. I wonder if it’s the academy that tries to separate them. I see a connection in things poetic as far as my community is concerned. My voice is witness, connecting seemingly disparate “fields of study.” For me they all happen simultaneously. Religion, language, spirituality, poetry together make my black ink. I can’t disaggregate my own being into constituent parts to say, this is the queer part, this is the spiritual part, this is the materially obsessed part, this is the Caribbean part, this is the Bhojpuri part, this is the Tamilian part…the list goes on forever. To be a queer immigrant of color is to be at one with the paradoxes around you. I choose to write into these paradoxes, to see what kind of tensions emerge. In the end, with most poems, I learn something about myself—something about how my mind makes its queer-as-fuck associations.

That doesn’t mean that I haven’t been conflicted about my desires. If anything, complexity and upending linear narratives have helped me contextualize all of these parts, leading to my following so many spun threads, old yarns, and ancestral magics.

As a lesbian and a person of faith, I'm really interested in the seamless way you weave religious imagery with descriptions of gay love and desire in many of your poems, especially in The Cowherd's Son. Do you find that your queerness informs your spiritual life, or vice versa? How does poetry help you grapple with these two identities?

I am so happy to talk about this with you. Thank you for this wonderful question. I think that religious stories can be rooted in the very human struggle to make the world more just. The problem is, is that for most people this means sticking to archaic ways of thinking about the Divine that constrict and oppress. We can use religious stories as the metaphors they are and actually fight for liberation from and changing of oppressive, racist, transphobic, homophobic, misogynist governments. What if they were actually meant to forge connections between people instead of divide and spread hate? Remember Jesus was a brown ace anti-government radical. His followers today (who vote for candidates like  tr*mp and Roy Moore; who after the election stop fighting the system that still oppresses bodies of color) are the opposite.

I write poems against this nonsense and embrace a spirituality that challenges dogmatic systems of belief. Religious mythology was written for us to change, to question, and to rail against. My Divine is anti-stasis. My Divine is queer, changing, fluid. My Divine is profane. My Divine pulls off their bra and cummerbund and dances naked at every crossroad they find.  My queerness is spiritual, and here I am writing at the intersections.