By KILEY CAMPBELL
Last Wednesday, the Poets Out Loud reading series added two more acclaimed poets to its long series of guest readers. One of these poets embodies maximalism, saying the most to get closest to our most complex emotions; the other compresses and compacts her poetry, adding new depth to extreme brevity.
Rajiv Mohabir and Kay Ryan gave readings of their respective award-winning poetry, in conjunction with Kundiman, a nonprofit organization for advancing the prominence of Asian-American writers.
Mohabir, who read his works first, received the 2015 Kundiman Prize for Poetry. Speaking a little of himself and his background before the reading, he said “I’m very much in love with New York City, and I’m very much in love with Queens.” He described his experiences of life in the neighborhood of Jackson Heights, and its influence on his work is heavy. The first poem of the evening Mohabir read, “Um…”, was specifically about Jackson Heights, he said.
Beyond that, his work explores the process of understanding not only the world around him, but himself. His poems illustrate his thoughts and fears growing up as mixed race Indo-Caribbean, as well as queer. Besides those motifs, though, Mohabir’s works are disparate. He suggests that his somewhat nomadic life, having lived in Queens, Hawaii, Alabama, London, all imbue each of his works with a different geographic sense that make the meaning.
In reading it aloud, Mohabir’s style is a blend of nostalgia, the wisdom of hindsight, and sorrow. He often returns to thoughts of happiness in times of this sorrow, almost mockingly asking questions in his poems such as: “What joy is there in drinking tears?” and “What of the joys of now?” Words, phrases and feelings come back to haunt him; the repeating line “Go home, Paki!” in one of his darker works puts Mohabir into an inescapable reality of a sometimes cruel world. But he realizes he can make this world beautiful with language.
Kay Ryan, who followed Mohabir, inhabits the more compact world of poetry. Her list of achievements is formidable; she’s been published by Grove Press, won the MacArthur Genius Grant, the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and was the United States Poet Laureate from 2008 to 2010.
Where Mohabir’s work spreads out to all corners, Ryan’s work shrinks into the smallest spaces it can fit. The first poem of the evening, “Train Track Figure,” was so short that Ryan read it twice to ensure the audience caught it. Other poems were just as brief. The theme of the perspective of animals was prominent in this particular reading, with poems such as “Spider Web” suggesting how we may view familiar things from unfamiliar angles.
Ryan’s poetry is irreverent at the best of times, and toys with those who listen to it. Rhymes are unexpected and unemphasized; they jump out and surprise the listener. Puns and jokes contrast the mystery of unknowability many of her poems leave.
A Q&A section followed the readings. One audience member asked Ryan whether in her work she comes up with the words first and the meaning later, or vice versa.“I would say that it’s a very volatile relationship,” she answered. “I’m yearning in some direction, I want something when I start writing… The words’ affection for one another and where they want to go alters your own mind, and your mind is improved in that.” Mohabir nodded in agreement. “It’s a beautiful collaboration.”