Poetry in the Cellar: poems read aloud at evening community event in Brookline

Rajiv Mohabir (front), with his memoir “Antiman” and book “Cutlish,” and Sandra Lim (back), with her “The Curious Thing,” sat together to read their poems and address readers’ questions at the “Used Book Cellar” area inside the Brookline Booksmith. (Photo by Luwa Yin/BU News Service)

By Luwa Yin 
Boston University News Service

Earlier this month, two poets connected with readers to discuss their new work at Brookline Booksmith, reading poems and reflecting on personal stories, folded in metaphors.

The event was part of the Brookline Booksmith’s “Transnational Literature Series,” mainly focusing on migration, politics, literature, and works in translation.

Award-winning poets Rajiv Mohabir, with his memoir “Antiman” and book “Cutlish,” and Sandra Lim, with her poetry collection “The Curious Thing,” sat together to address readers’ questions on Tuesday, Nov. 9.

Mohabir, an immigrant to the United States, had lived in Florida, India, and New York. 

Being queer and brown in the United States, Mohabir alluded to himself as someone whose gender doesn’t match his sexual identity. Reading the poem “Amazon River Dolphin,” he referred to the queerness in those pink dolphins among the rest of the species. 

Mohabir told stories of his ancestral family, who worked at the cane plantation in South America. He said when he was growing up, he was taught to compartmentalize things, and that might happen to his family.

“It’s kind of amazing to be an antiman,” he said.

Born in South Korea and growing up in the United States, Lim also read poetry with traces of family. The poem “Something Means Everything” contains her interactions with her mother. In it, she describes having a mysterious fever and spitting at her mother. 

“A lot of people have asked me ‘did you do that,’” Lim said, before reading her poem. “And I’ll never tell.” 

She said when poets are writing, they often find themselves reimagining their lives. She considers her memory as an “invention.”

For memories that are fluorescent, she tries to rearrange some fragments and draw metaphors from them.

“It’s interesting what gets sort of changed, or recorded, or remembered in imagination,” Lim said.

Mohabir distinguishes between “emotional truth” that poems can lay bare and “granular facts” in the lines. He said he felt disingenuous for calling “Antiman” a memoir, but everything in that book was what felt true to him emotionally.

He pointed to the importance of being able to separate oneself from memories, especially traumatic ones, by setting boundaries.

He said there is a “performative” aspect of him reading his poems aloud.

Being vulnerable doesn’t necessarily mean “to let everybody watch you bleed out on the stage,” he said, but rather “knowing that you are going to perform that in front of people.” 

He said keeping the distance between himself and his work needs lots of practice.

Mohabir said he has been cultivating activities outside of writing, as well, such as checking social media and emails.

“I think you have to have that kind of preservation,” Lim said.

Pierce Alquist, director of the Transnational Literature Series, said Brookline is an international community, and it’s important to have “those international [poets] as both part of our community and also uplifting those places.”

She said she is hoping to reach a broader audience by continuing with both in-person and online events, which have reached global audiences.

Lim said poems are “what we are passionate about or preoccupied, ” and showing others a different model of thinking was “the bread and butter.”

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