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"In the Ink of Night": An Interview with Rajiv Mohabir

Winner of the 2014 Intro Prize in Poetry by Four Way Books for his first full-length collection The Taxidermist’s Cut (Spring 2016), Rajiv Mohabir received fellowships from Voices of Our Nation’s Artist foundation, Kundiman, and the American Institute of Indian Studies language program. His poetry and translations are internationally published or forthcoming from journals such as Best American Poetry 2015, Guernica, Prairie Schooner, Crab Orchard Review, Drunken Boat, Great River Review, PANKand Aufgabe. He received his MFA in Poetry and Translation from at Queens College, CUNY where he was Editor in Chief of the Ozone Park Literary Journal. Currently he is pursuing a PhDn English from the University of Hawai`i.

His poems, "Underwater Acoustics" and "Overfished," appeared in Issue of Sixty-Eight of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Christina Oddo about the value of space in a poem, the use of tension between images, and the humpback song.

The stanzas vary in length, highlighting and framing the most vivid images. How did you work form into content, or vise versa?

The form of this poem happened as I was writing it. Or should I say it revealed itself though breath constraint?

It was a subconscious processing of images on my part—how to allow for the maximum realization? I have a hard time reading couplets when I write them because their evenness is distracting. I’ve tried to stop writing them for now unless a poem begs for them. This is supposed to be an underwater realization.

As a reader I value space in the poem, on the page. I personally need a break as I read from image to image.

I also wanted to echo the ocean’s wave pattern so that visually the reader is on the boat and then in the water, finally coming back up for breath transformed.

[A line break, then]


What prompted the intermingling of both oceanic and musical images?

Well, to be honest, this poem’s subject matter is the humpback song. Scientists don’t know whether the songs are ancestral but what is certain is that they change every year during migration. Only male humpbacks sing. You can hear them off of the North Shore of O‘ahu during the winter months when these whales come to these waters to give birth and breed.

We, my family, has migrated so far already and keeps traveling. I am making a parallel between a “sohar” or a Caribbean Hindi/Bhojpuri birth song. These were brought by indentured laborers into the Caribbean from 1838-1917 during the period of Indian indenture. We are ushered into the world by breaking into sound. The first time I heard humpback song underwater without any technological aid was when I was with my mother. I imagined the songs my ancestors sang when they were crossing the kalapani.

How did you choose which images to develop as concrete and which images to further abstractly, and what glues and balances the two types?

I thought a body sense from the beginning to be the most important part. I wanted the reader to feel as though s/h/xe were on a boat and jumping into the sea. It’s not the mother and calf that are singing, but some other whales in the distance connected to these two “playing” at the surface. There’s a mysterious connection between song and body and songs that haunt the body.

I wanted to tease out the connections that were a little more hidden: the sohar’s history just under my skin and its correlation with cetacean song. I thought by leading the reader through images that are juxtaposed some tension would arise: ghosts and sohars—both echo extinction and having been spouted as whale spume. These human songs are still inside of the speaker’s body.

What are you currently reading?

I am currently reading Yearling by Lo Kwa Mei-en, winner of the 2013 Kundiman Prize. I am also reading Weweni by Margaret Noodin, bilingual in Anishinaabemowin and English.

What are you writing?

Right now I am working on poems that examine the connections between the whale biology and ecology, queers caught up in the forced migrations during the period of Indian indenture, and ties between racism and homo- and transphobia.

I also have some poem that I’m terming “anti-colonial magic spells.”

And slightly less glamorous: term papers for my classes. One is called “Coolitude as an Arts Movement: Forging Legibility in North American Asian American Discourse” that examines Indo-Caribbean arts and history and the contemporary Asian American literary landscape.

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