Rajiv Mohabir

Acoustic Trauma (Ghostbird Press, 2015) Acoustic Trauma front cover

Why a chapbook?

I like the chapbook because it’s small enough to have a tightly bound poetic concentration that full-length book projects can’t necessarily get away with. A chapbook also allows you to experiment with fissures and disjoints between poems. If a full-length coheres too much, as a reader I get bored. If there is too much disjoint, I’m easily confused. As a reader. a chapbook lets me get my feet wet without turning into a whale entirely.

This also means that a chapbook could be a way to publish a long poem—like what I have done here in Acoustic Trauma from Ghostbird Press.

What’s your chapbook “about”?

This chapbook is my attempt to merge three areas into one poetic: the eco-critical, the post-colonial, and the queer by examining the natural history of the humpback whale and queer trans-Atlantic migrations of Indians in indenture under the British East India Company.

The connections between these themes are subconscious, each thought joined to another through the form of the long poem written in prose and poetic refrains. The refrains travel through Guyanese Bhojpuri, Creole, and English; the prose sections are both personal and historical. These are songs where the cetacean and the human voices merge into one intonation.

If you have written more than one chapbook, could you describe each of them?

This year, I have two chapbooks released. My other one is called A Veil You’ll Cast Aside, by Anew Print (anewprint.tumblr.com/). It’s a translation project where I took one Guyanese folk song and translated it from Guyanese Bhojpuri into Creole and then into English. I did this thirty times, each using a different theory of translation. What I got was both strange and familiar.

I have a chapbook out with Finshing Line Press from 2011 called na mash me bone, which is a translation of my Aji’s (grandmother’s) songs.

I also have one from Pudding House Press 2010 (I didn’t win the annual competition but I was called a “Poet of Note” by the publisher) called na bad-eye me, which is a collection that centers around the removal of the evil eye.

Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it? 

This long poem was written in two parts. I first wrote the refrain sections and then the prose. I used a strategy of reading the subaltern: I found firsthand accounts from 1898 of queer men who were brought to Guyana on the SS Mersey and were caught having sex. They were “punished” by the ship’s surgeon. This is a tracing of a queer lineage to colonial damage.

I was also highly inspired by news accounts that I had read that concerned the US Navy sonar testing that occurs in the Pacific, and since Hawai`i is heavily militarized, I wanted to write about some of the effects of its present day and illegal occupation and colonization by the United States.

I wanted to put these aspects of my history, my migration story into conversation to let the parallels between what has happened and what is happening today beach themselves on the shores of the poetic line. I want to show my solidarity as a queer who thrives despite being hunted to the brink of extinction.

How did you decide on the title of your chapbook? 

The title comes from the material results of what happens when the US Navy blasts their underwater sonar. It ruptures cetacean auditory organs so much that they are no longer able to navigate, or they are forced to the surface to escape the sonic blast giving them the bends. Basically, I think about how this also happened with the Christian gospel in my family: how it drowned out my grandparents’ mantras and erased queer spaces in our homes.

What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?

I love books on animals: how to track them, what their mating rituals are like, field guides, biological texts, etc. I like to use strange words and phrases I find in them. I like to imagine I can learn everything there is to know about animals and get to know myself that way. I really like stories of transformation, where people turn into animals or where a poem becomes prose and then verse again.

Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?

Who are the people who inspired this or helped you with this project?

I would have to thank Frank Stewart, Allison Adele Hedge Coke, and Gaiutra Bahadur for their eyes on this project. Frank and Allison helped me by reading over this text, and Gaiutra found the original ship documents from 1898 in the Guyanese National Archive and sent them to me.

I have to thank Rukmini, Mohongu, and Nabibaksh for surviving the ship journey and their contracts of indenture in Guyana. Without their presence in this sort of genaelogy, I would still remain ignorant of their history.

I have to thank the humpbacks who make Hawaiian waters their home for the winter.

I have to thank the Kanaka Maoli on whose unceded ʻāina I calved this poem.

Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?

Kimiko Hahn’s chapbook entitled The Cryptic Chamber (Epiphany Editions, 2014) helped me to envision a chapbook-length poem that pays close attention to the sounds of language. It made me aware of subconscious connections between personal experience and biological/ historical texts.

Faizal Deen’s work Land Without Chocolate: A Memoir was also very important to me in considering what his assemblage of identities means as far as staking a poetic claim. He is the first queer Indo-Guyanese poet to publish a collection of poems in North America, and I am inspired and indebted to his trailblazing and to the space he’s made.

As far as text is concerned, Gaiutra Bahadur’s book Coolie Woman was very instrumental in my finding the queer history that I write about. In her book, she makes mention of the violences perpetrated against women and some mention about the anti-queer sentiments fostered by the British colonial regime. You can read more about her book here: http://cooliewoman.com/. She was the one who made accessible these original documents (from 1898) that I draw from. It’s from this text that mine comes: Bahadur’s practice of reading subaltern histories through holes in “official” accounts led me to this project, pushed me to think about charging through the spaces in this poetic with the velocity of imagination.

What are you working on now?

I am working on several things at the moment. I am working on formal poems that derive structure from the mathematics of recorded whale song. I am working on creative non-fiction pieces, poems, video poems, anti-colonial magic spells, fiction, and critical papers, and I am learning to play whale songs on the ocarina. I have a twelve-hole and two four-hole ocarinas that I recently came across.

What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?

Love what you do and take risks. Risk telling the truth. Risk blowing off your other “more important” work on your desk to follow the poems that haunt you. You are so beautiful whether you publish or not. Keep writing. The world is a better place when it’s filled with people doing what they love.


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 poems appear or are forthcoming from journals and anthologies such as Best American Poetry 2015, Guernica, Prairie Schooner, Crab Orchard Review, Drunken Boat, Anti-, Great River Review, and PANK. He received his MFA in Poetry and Translation from Queens College, CUNY and currently is pursuing a PhD in English from the University of Hawai`i.



You are singing a song with your pectoral fins held out in an upside-down hallelujah. A navy sonar pulses. Imagine a blinding flash. Your hearing’s poached. You dive deep until your folksongs are punctured. When you wash up on shore, your bones will be carved into a white whistle that sings someone else’s song.


                        tutal haddiya pe u aapan khaniya likh dele

                        o rama kauneke aapan ramayanwa sunijai

___________________‘pon abi bruk-up bone dis ‘e write ‘e katha

___________________O Ram who go hear abi Ramine?

_________________________On our broken bones they scrawl their own histories,

_________________________O Rama, who will ever hear of our own Ramayan?


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