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Poet to Poet Interview: Rajiv Mohabir and Craig Santos Perez

Rajiv Mohabir is the author of The Cowherd’s Son (Tupelo Press, 2017, winner of the 2015 Kundiman Prize) and The Taxidermist’s Cut (Four Way Books, 2016, winner of the Four Way Books Intro to Poetry Prize and finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry in 2017). In 2015 he was a winner of the AWP Intro Journals Award. He received his MFA in Poetry and Translation from Queens College–CUNY and his PhD in English from the University of Hawaii. Currently he is an assistant professor of poetry at Auburn University. Read more about him at www.rajivmohabir.com.

Craig Santos Perez is a native Chamorro from the Pacific Island of Guåhan (Guam). He is the co-founder of Ala Press, author of four collections of poetry, and the co-editor of three anthologies of Pacific literature. He has received the American Book Award, the PEN Center USA/Poetry Society of American Prize, the Hawai’i Literary Arts Council Award, and the Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship. He is an associate professor in the English Department at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa, where he teaches Pacific literature, eco-poetry, and creative writing.

Rajiv Mohabir: Thanks for doing this interview with me. I am excited to put our two collections into conversation ourselves! I have long been a fan of your work: your poetry and your dedication to your community. Congratulations on your fourth collection of poems! I have to say that the concerns in this book expand upon the kind of eco-poetry that appears in your previous three books. It’s at once harrowing for the subject matter and astounding in its formal sense of repetition and return. You begin the collection with a Joy Harjo quote “Every day is a reenactment of the creation story” from “A Postcolonial Tale.” Can you tell me a little about how this fourth volume from Unincorporated Territory came about? I’m interested here in the origin story of the entire poem as well as this installment.

Craig Santos Perez: Thank you as well. I’m also a big fan of your work, and congrats on your new book as well, which I look forward to discussing with you. The origin story of the from Unincorporated Territory series begins twelve years ago, when I was an MFA student at the U of San Francisco. My poems explored the history and politics of my home island of Guam and my experiences as a native Chamorro migrant. After I wrote my thesis, I realized that I still had so many stories to share about these subjects that couldn’t all fit in one book. I then conceptualized the work as an ongoing, multi-book series, and each book as an excerpt of the series. The origin of the fourth book begins in 2014 and tells the story of my marriage and the birth of my first daughter. These poems are juxtaposed with other poems about ongoing militarization, colonization, and environmental injustice on Guam, Hawaiʻi (where I now live), and the Pacific.

Can you share with me the origin story of your new, award-winning book, The Cowherd’s Son? How does it relate/connect your first critically acclaimed book, The Taxidermist’s Cut?

RM: It’s a wonder that sometimes poems and poetic obsessions find us. I see you building a platform for your poetic intervention calling so many folks in.

I began writing some of the poems that appear in The Cowherd’s Son during my years at Queens College in the MFA program. These poems actually were originally part of The Taxidermist’s Cut that deepened the personal with my spiritual and religious inheritances (am I supposed to say “my speaker’s”?). I pulled the spine of these poems out of the originally collection and wondered if they could work together as a manuscript. The first collection needed to be what it was–a look into youth spent in the South. The Cowherd’s Son though expanded this by considering a Caribbean community and my many inheritances, both poetic and cultural.

I was a graduate student at the University of Hawai‘i when I started to put the manuscript together of the poems that didn’t make it into The Taxidermist’s Cut. Allison Adelle Hedge Coke was the Distinguished Visiting Writer and I was in her workshop class. She agreed to look over my manuscript and worked in Sinclair Library with me to arrange it. She gave me the courage to believe this manuscript could be a book and suggested that I submit it to prizes, which I did.

I like the idea of the political in poetry, what you do with history of colonization is astonishes. This has been on my mind a lot lately. Recently a very celebrated white poet said to a group of black and brown students that writing about the “topical” (such as news events that chronicle POC taking back their space and voices from a toxic and deadly American government) is not the way to write poems. Your first prose piece “from the legend of juan malo (a malologue)” speaks specifically to the noise of the American nationalism as pertains to the liberation of Guam. What, she said, is important are selecting “universal” themes to write about. What do you think the connections between poetry and politics can accomplish?

CSP: Interesting to hear that your new book emerged from your first book. I can definitely feel the connective tissue between the two books (besides the fact that they both won awards!). And it’s great to hear that you worked with Allison–she is also one of my mentors and a poet who is very dear to me.

I once wrote a poem about a celebrated white poet who said something stupid about poetry. The poem was simultaneously topical and universal!

Joking aside, “politics” is a major theme in my work. Sometimes I aim to expose how colonialism, militarism, and tourism have negatively impacted Guam and my indigenous culture. I will even quote from certain documents to highlight the political language of colonialism. Sometimes I craft family narratives within historical contexts to show how larger political forces have impacted my family, highlighting human stories. This often leads to writing poems that express the politics of survival, resistance, and resurgence. Throughout my work, I also express decolonial politics through poems of protest, critique, and witness. Our native voices are political expressions.

Poetry has always been important parts of political movements, and political movements have always inspired poetry. Poetry can help us articulate our own politics and interrogate oppressive structures and the language(s) of power. Poetry is a form of empowerment and inspiration. Poetry is a creative act amidst acts of destructive violence. Poetry is an expression of dignity, humanity, resilience, and hope.

You write powerfully about many historical and contemporary political issues in The Cowherd’s Son. Can you tell us more about how you engage with politics in terms of subject matter and poetic form?

RM: I really like what you said–that native voices are political expressions. It strikes me since living in a colonial, occupied state can be a revolutionary act. To say “I am here” defies settler logic. I feel like also, for me and my family, surviving despite colonization, forced migration, and indenture enough to begin to voice our stories is political expression. Here’s to resonance!

In The Cowherd’s Son I broadened the scope for a speaker in a matrix–where history unfolds and creates a new imaginary that affects our lived lives. Queerness, resistance to being forgotten for simpler immigration narratives, and a history of dehumanization at the hands of British colonizers happen in intersections with spirituality, familial lore, and family impressing upon the poems.

As for the formal aspects of this work, I really wanted to draw out some connections between an oral education, a colonial history, and my own American education. Some poems are sonnets, some are ghazals. I have one poem in a form of my own invention (the chutney poem) in this collection–“Moha- Vs. Maha-” in the fourth section of “My Name is a Map.” I want my brown readers to look and see themselves. I want them to know that I am addressing them, that there’s power in our throats.

There’s even a section in the middle of a folktale broken into three disjointed fragments that I wrote in my grandmother’s reconstructed languages. I do this so that there is a sense that people who are non-European, brown, and unlettered can still be holders of magic. I have seen my own grandmother’s generation be belittled for their lack of formal education. These women recited epic poetry by heart, knew the healing powers of herbs, and how to survive. My poetry is descended from this strength.

I am wondering also about the formal concerns of your collection. The Table of Contents reveals the cycle of four sections from “from the legends of juan malo (a malologue)” which are prose forms, to “ginen understory” to “ginen organic acts” to “ginen Ka Lāhui o ka Pō Interview” to finally “ginen island of no birdsong”—its cycle is very moving and I am surprised and delighted by the divergence from this pattern by the time “Mahalo Circle” comes around. Can you talk about this organizational structure? What forms are you working toward/against with this book?

CSP: Yes, one of the many things I love about your book is its layering and interweaving of complex identities, histories, and politics. You utilize different forms with such careful attention to detail, sound, rhythm, and spacing–that level of craft feels rare to me these days. This is augmented by the several languages that comprise and haunt this book! Someday I would like to teach this book because it is engaging on so many levels.

My book is structured into four sections, and each section contains excerpts from five different poem-series, as you mention. These numbers are important and symbolic in many indigenous creation stories, so I wanted to reference that. I also wanted to reference T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, which I engage in various ways throughout [lukao]. Across my work, I have engaged with other modernist, postmodernist, and contemporary long poems and serial book projects. If you add in “mahalo circle,” then the book is five sections, and to me that also references the structure of a Catholic rosary (which is also a theme in the book). At the end of each section, there is a “#prayfor____” that is repeated ten times, and that also references the form of a rosary (ten prayers in each section). The title, [lukao], means procession. So just as the themes address procession (creation, birth, marriage, death, extinction, decay, marching armies, climate change, etc), I wanted the overall structure to embody processions (cycles, rosary, prayer, circles, etc). I end with “mahalo circle” to break the symmetry (i like to have elements of both symmetry and indeterminacy in my work, closure and openness), but also because I wanted the reader to end by being encircled and embraced by gratitude and thanks.

As you know, the major theme of “mahalo circle” is food, which is a theme that is prevalent in your work as well. Can you share with us your thoughts on the poetics, politics, and culture of food in your work? Will you share a recipe with us as well?

RM: What I find devastating about your work is your formal and artistic range. Your seamless move from prose to couplets is quite an effect that helps me, as a reader, to stay with you. It’s like tension and release, propelling the reader forward. Knowing also that your are influenced by and draw from poets like Charles Olson, Joy Harjo, and Derek Walcott while channeling your poetics into form rooted in indigenous poetics gives your work depth beyond imagining.

Regarding food in my collection, I think that I play with the expectations of a brown and colonized body. Food in Hindu families tends to be the playground of oppressive politics–especially when you add the complication of Caribbean identity. When people say that Hindus are vegetarian it makes me sick. Even my family from upper-casted identities eat meat–to say otherwise is revisionist. In the poem “Butchering a Hen” my mother shows me how to cut up an entire bird which was gross and delicious. The West Indian foods that I write about are made with simple mixes of garam masala and other spices, and are mostly unrecognizable to South Asians more recently from the Subcontinent. But our foods are real, and yes–we do exist.

Here is my family recipe for garam masala, a staple in my household. I have been trying to do the cooking processes in the old ways–including hand-grinding my own spice mixes. I am currently obsessed with my grandmother’s garam masala. Keep in mind that the proportions are not actual. For them to be correct I need a spoon in the shape of my grandmother’s palm.

Garam Masala:
6 oz jeera (cumin)
4 oz sarso (mustard seeds)
2 oz methi (fenugreek seeds)
2 oz kali mirch (black peppercorns)
2 oz mangrail (onion seeds)
1 oz saunf (aniseed)
4 tej patta (bay leaves)
1 daal chini (stick cinnamon)
7 laung (cloves)
3 kali elaichi (black cardamom)
1 oz jayphal (nutmeg)

Toast the spices in a dry pan until they are brown and fragrant. Let sit until completely cool. Spoon the mixture little by little onto the sil (flat stone) and grind with a lordha (a handheld stone). Keep the powdered, roasted spices in a jar.

I write about rum a lot in this collection. It was a byproduct of sugarcane and was doled out to the indentured laborers for a sum of money that kept them orbiting the toxic plantation economy. Folks used it to forget their pain and dispossession, spent their money, and were indebted further, needing more funds to survive and buy more rum. What cost was this poison to the British, I wonder. We have inherited alcoholism, diabetes, and heart disease from our colonized diets and I want to show how addiction creeps into every family function, every holiday, and every section of this collection.

from unincorporated territories [lukao] draws from such a vast archive–even making connections between Pacific archipelagos, atolls, and islands with the Caribbean. I want to swim in your work for a long, long while–and since you are prolific I am excited for what’s to come. Can you tell me about what else you’re currently working on, or your plan for future projects?

CSP: Thanks for sharing the recipe! I love the image of a spoon in the shape of your grandmother’s palm. Throughout your book, I appreciate your intersecting focus on the body, the land and sea, and food and drink. I feel like you truly capture the profound ecology of your genealogies, cultures, histories, migrations, traumas, and desires. Thank you for this amazing book.

Thankfully this year I am on sabbatical, so I am working on several editorial, scholarly, and creative writing projects. I am editing a new series of Pacific literature anthologies with the University of Hawaiʻi press, with the first book coming out in 2018. And I am working on my first scholarly book focused on Chamorro poetry and poetics, which is currently under contract with the University of Arizona Press. In terms of poetry, I am writing two books. The one that is further along will be a collection of my eco-poetry, and the other manuscript is the fifth book in my unincorporated territory series. Hopefully all these projects will come to fruition within the next five years.

Thanks so much, Rajiv, for this conversation. I am inspired by all the work you have published thus far, and I look forward to your future projects. Would you be willing to share what you are currently working on and excited about? Mahalo!

RM: I can’t wait to read all of these works! You once said that if there is no platform for your people in the United States (as far is poetry is concerned) then you have to make one. I’ve carried these words around with me since you said them.

I am also working on putting together essays that deal with the concept of Coolitude poetics as articulated by Khal Torabully and Marina Carter. I am hoping to make this manuscript a cultural studies meets creative writing kind of text, complete with writing prompts, personal essays, and poetry reviews. I also am working on my third collection of poems that include my invented form of the “chutney poem” that chronicles the speaker’s time in the heart of the Caribbean diaspora of New York City.

I have a book of translations forthcoming from Kaya Press called Holi Songs of Demerara written in 1916 by Lalbihari Sharma. who was an indentured laborer on the plantations. His book is a wonder of music that tells of the conditions of his servitude.

This has been great, Craig. I am so happy to have followed you for so long and even more thrilled that I get to follow you long into the future.