Writing, Literature and Publishing Assistant Professor Rajiv Mohabir is one of five finalists for a 2021 National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award in poetry, for his latest collection, Cultish (Four Way, 2021).
The NBCC “honors outstanding writing and fosters a national conversation about reading, criticism, and literature,” according to its mission statement. Winners from each category (fiction, nonfiction, biography, autobiography, poetry, and criticism) will be announced in March.
“I am thrilled to see these poems getting this kind of attention,” Mahabir said. “There are not many Indo-Caribbean people publishing books of poems in the United States, and the fact that this work is being recognized feels like something is shifting, culturally, in the world of American poetry.”
The poems in Cultish, Mohabir’s third collection, are based on the oral literatures and music of his Guyanese family, which they were always told did not belong in the “proper” English-speaking world, Mohabir said.
“I use my ‘brokenness’ as the site of possible transformation – showing the beauty of our songs and poetics through creating formal constraints that derive from Sundar Popo’s chutney music,” he said. “The chutney poem is just that: chutneyed of African rhythms, Indian instrumentation, and English hauntings.
“I hope this [nomination] opens up space for others who have been told that their traditions are ‘broken’ and that they start to see themselves as whole.”
Mohabir is the author of two previous poetry collections. The Cowherd’s Son (2017) won the 2015 Kundiman Prize, and The Taxidermist’s Cut (2016) was selected by Brenda Shaughnessy for the 2014 Intro Prize in Poetry by Four Way Books.
His work has appeared in literary journals including Ploughshares, ARC Poetry, Los Angeles Review, Pacific Review, Poetry, and Asian American Literary Review. He was awarded a 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant as the translator of I Even Regret Night: Holi Songs of Demerara, the only firsthand account of the mass displacement of people from the Anglophone Caribbean, originally published in 1916 by an indentured laborer.
Mohabir’s fellow finalists for a National Book Critics Circle Award in the 2021 poetry category are B.K. Fischer (Ceive), Donika Kelly (The Renunciations), Cheswayo Mphanza (The Rhinehart Frames), and Diane Seuss (frank: sonnets).
Previous finalists include U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, and MacArthur Grant awardees Louise Glück and Claudia Rankine.