Imaginary Homelands: IV
Infidel, Kafir, Renegade, Turncoat
Ah, flame. Whither?
In our language, in their language, in her language,
there are so many words
for the unbeliever. What proof
the world is spherical? Tonight,
a fire in the moon. I reach
one end of the world
to your other.
You shone & I lit a dandelion
along tracks. With harvest, would water
leap? With dispersal, would you
sing? If there were no music, I would still
hear my own sorrow. Define betrayal. Define
slicing the neck. Define inquisition. The leathered
woman in a floor-length skirt extends her hand beckoning
communion in another tongue. I clasp
the card she purveys & utter, “No creo” – convert
conversation into want.
Decipher: what want extends belief? This is worth veil.
View the light
of the oncoming train & the minutes pass, one upon another, a deck
of unmoored stars. To forecast is haram yet who amongst us seeks
not to meet the journey our hands sediment? What incantations
to this error
of our lives?
I reach out to grasp your back, scruff of neck, you
like a cool cream in summer’s
absolutions. I grant permission
for your disbelief. Unheath the benediction,
spirits gathering as your voice, curtained morning
drawl with night all around. Uncover
the path, our tracks near. We praise
Tell us about the conception of this poem.
“Write a poem in which you admit to something, deny something, absolve yourself from something & vow to something.” – my poetry notebook from 8/12/07
“Infidel, kafir, renegade, turncoat” started when the magical poet-comrade Marlon Unas Esguerra gave me this prompt. We had been meeting through the summer of 2007 to write, exchange work, and spur new visions. A season of blessings.
That summer I had been examining women’s place in religious stories. And I was running a South Asian women’s organization, re-imagining women’s places in our world.
On the page this poem “started,” as so many of my poems do, by a simple encounter on the subway – a commonplace moment of attempted proselytizing: an encounter of worlds brokered by language and error, a parlance of beliefs brokered by questions and desires.
This poem is rooted in beloved community. In my journal, my entry for 9/15/07 indicates: “Thursday eve I went with Marlon to the Adrienne Rich reading. Her Catalan translator [Montserrat Abelló], an amazing woman of 90, charmed with sprite. It is amazing to hear such voices – witness to a revolution, fascism, exile, return…I have yet time to create a body – the Catalan writer first published at 45. Imagine – that is a 45-year span of work yet.”
Oh, the anxiety of a writer with a first book recently out in the world, wondering what will be of the second, and moved by the transformations of women, hoping for my own measure of radical impact (yes, still hoping!). At that time, I had been working to develop a collection of poems on faith (to be called The Fifth Season but that season has not yet come).
As I wrote in my journal that day, “Both Marlon and I in our new poems dwelled on faith…His use of numbers again amaze. I can’t believe I produced ‘Infidel, kafir, renegade, turncoat’ in one day. Of course – the kernels over many days but the poem – despite its patchwork – feels organic/structured & revelatory. It is so fun to be writing well.”
Witness a balance of anxiety and fierceness. My communion in community. Against the backdrop of work and romance dramas, poetry – with its space for questioning and belonging – held as my anchor and room for play. Poetry – then and now – is my leap of faith.
Though, truth be told, now I see the poem had been “written” over a month and assembled in a day. Labor is often new in retrospect.
I vividly remember the first time I read this poem as part of the Sense of Vocation Journeys of Faith: Migration and Writing for Change events with writer Sejal Shah at Luther College: the lilt in the title, the opening susurration. I am excited for this memory and the sound of you reading the poem in this now, for the space faith travels across times.
You served as The Artistic Director for Together We Are New York. Can you tell us about this organization and your role?
As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 was coming, I felt an intense need to enable a platform for Asian American voices. Our experiences of loss, racist backlash, and grief had not become part of the conversation on 9/11 and its repercussions in the U.S. and the world. I believe that for us to heal as a community, we must record our experiences and create a space for dialogue, belonging, and moving forward together.
With this aim in mind, I had the privilege of serving as Artistic Director for Together We Are New York: Asian Americans Remember and Re-Vision 9/11, a project made possible through Kundiman. For this community-based public arts poetry project, 9 of us Kundiman poets interviewed community members on their experiences with 9/11 and the decade after. I generated my poems following a conversation with Rajinder Singh Khalsa, a Sikh American survivor of a hate crime in 2004 – and through the sparks of our poet team conversations. Through 2011-2012, we were able to reach 5 venues with our multimedia polyphonic performance – a threading of our poems with audio clips of interviews, and with time for audience dialogue in each event. The collaboration, exchanges, and art for healing move me yet.
Where or what are your homelands?
According to my Facebook page, my place of origin is Poetry, GA.
My parents debated why I use this listing. My father thought, perhaps it’s a mistake as we had actually lived in Georgia. My mother astutely conveyed, it’s metaphoric.
Metaphor is a homeland. The ability to be located while transported, to transport and be rooted in vision. I believe in the spiritual homeland, a place where you can make spirit, see our brokenness, and be known both in breaking and re-making.
I was physically born in Ahmedabad, India and find here my ancestors, my passion roots. I grew up in the U.S. South and am marked by a love for pecan pie, the witness of how a branch of a crab apple tree can be a switch, the experience of how a space can at once be a haven for racism and neighborliness/educational inequity and big dreams.
And in this place I’ve called home for 20 years, I’ve kindled as an activist and artist. New York City, a place so vast, it is its own country.
Finally, my homelands of aspiration and inspiration include: the universe, my best self, wonder, love.
Are there any poets you'd recommend we check out?
There are so many amazing poets working today and through time. I will share here a few poets in my personal treasure chest: Kālidāsa, a great Sanskrit poet whose Ṛtusaṃhāra (The Gathering of Seasons) astounds me every time. My friends, April Naoko Heck and Eugenia Leigh, whose recently-released first books, A Nuclear Family, and Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows, weave personal and social history with grace, power, grit, and resonance.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on enabling more nurturing in my life.
And I am working to get out a second collection of poems, Miracle Marks. The collection explores women’s devotion, status, and being through use of Indian philosophy/iconography. In particular, I evoke Mira (referencing the poet-saint Mirabai) to plumb devotion; Saraswati, the goddess of arts & learning, to explore women’s creativity & equity; and, Maya, the concept of the non-duality of being, to investigate reality, illusions, and manifestations.
While the very first poems in the collection were written in July 2008, the manuscript first came together in a revelatory 2013 Poets House Emerging Poets fellowship workshop led by mentor extraordinaire, Jen Bervin. I then got a chance to do a visionary re-haul after a wonder-filled workshop with Eduardo Corral at Cave Canem this year.
I’m excited for the collection to be held in palm one day – and for all the poems from it making their way into the world now. Among other places, some of its poems have been published in Barzakh, Four Way Review, Quiddity, Southern Women’s Review, and are soon forthcoming in South Dakota Review.
I also recently completed Mirror Work, a performance art piece with artists Parul Shah and Deesha Narichania, which premiered end September at the Dumbo Arts Festival as part of the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective show on Beauty.
Purvi Shah’s first collection, Terrain Tracks (New Rivers Press, 2006), won the Many Voices Project prize. In 2013, she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and selected as a Poets House Emerging Poets Fellow. She is the winner of the inaugural SONY South Asian Social Services Award in 2008 for her work fighting violence against women. In 2011, she served as the Artistic Director for Together We Are New York, a community-based poetry project to highlight the voices of Asian Americans during the 10th anniversary of 9/11. You can discover more on her art and advocacy at purvipoets.net.