In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Purvi Shah
Tell us about your poem “Moving houses, Maya pumps a music that cannot offer” in Volume 22. How did it come to be?
In some ways, I have an unusual New York City story – which is that I’ve lived in my same apartment for 23 years. NYC is a city of transience, a city of temporary destinations. I thought it would be so for me too. And yet, here I am, decades later, now a verified New Yorker. And I am often imagining moving, imagining what it is to pack, what it is to unpack.
Like the poems in my latest book, Miracle Marks, “Moving houses, Maya pumps a music that cannot offer –” draws upon Hindu iconography & philosophy – particularly concepts of sound as creation, the universe as vibration, vibration as constant. I had been pondering ideas of being/non-being, the illusions of life, infinite in the finite, and the mundane boxes of life (even before the unboxing craze!). I had been exploring sound energy, the white space of being and creation, how the physicality of poems is a kind of breath, an imprint, an energy-scape.
What is it to praise the unfinished? What is it to praise? What is it to live – between boxes, between musics? Like many of my poems, this piece came to be in the space of questions, observations, sounds, and wonder.
Do you practice any other art forms? How do these influence your writing and/or creative process?
My mom says there are two things she loves: looking good and dancing. And so I’ve inherited a love of dancing, the body in motion, the body in praise, the body in joy. As I wrote this, we were nearing the end of last fall’s Navaratri, the nine nights of the celebration of the goddess in Hinduism. I grew up dancing garba, a folk dance of Gujarat done during Navaratri, a dance done in a circle. I love garba because it’s fun & energetic – and because it’s a community art. Anyone can garba. Anyone can be part of the circle. Anyone can praise the feminine divine. Garba builds community through joy. This sense of the circle, of lila (divine play) is plaited in my poems.
And though I am not a visual artist, I have collaborated with visual artists, particularly the brilliant Anjali Deshmukh in embodied, public art. In July 2018, we created Weave & Woven, an event that explored home and belonging through interactive art. I had written my poems onto the walls of an art gallery while Anjali had created a magical architecture of arches, domes, and lines with ribbon. We invited folks to write & draw on the walls, learn garba & raas and dance with me, and be part of the art.
I love when art can be community creation, when artists make possible community creation. As the first artist in my immigrant family, I feel deeply a connection to communal art forms. For that reason, I’ve sought out ways to enable writing in community and writing through community.
How does the current political climate influence your art or creative process?
The current political moment is exhausting – and requires connection. I’ve been trying to keep joy, hope, resistance, and community in my practice, which means going to readings (such as fundraisers supporting migrant justice) and book launch celebrations while I do my work as an advocate for gender, racial, and economic justice. I feel a deep responsibility to affirm longings for justice, for possibility while recognizing the resurgence of white supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, global fascisms (including in my two homelands of the U.S. and India), and oppressions facing us today. We need our truths to resist erasures. And I see creation as life-force, as part of continuing to live and love large, to bring about the world as we hope, the world we & future generations deserve.
What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
I developed more participatory art projects such as “Counting on Women” for Two Minutes to Midnight, a public art event in Sunnyside, Queens exploring climate and gender justice. In a public plaza, I asked folks: How do girls & women count? How do we count on girls & women? And I read excerpts of Miracle Marks in resonance & dialogue with the public wisdom.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and so I also shared from my work as an anti-violence advocate with book readings at CalArts and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. I’m grateful to be creating in community, to be in dialogue with students & the everyday public, and to be moving across spaces, to be moving across possibilities, to be moving.
Purvi Shah won the inaugural SONY South Asian Social Service Excellence Award for her leadership fighting violence against women. During the tenth anniversary of 9/11, with the Kundiman organization, she directed Together We Are New York, a community-based poetry project highlighting Asian American voices. Terrain Tracks, her debut poetry collection on migration and belonging, won the Many Voices Project prize. Her latest book, Miracle Marks, explores women, the sacred, and gender & racial equity. She serves as a board member of The Poetry Project. You can learn more about Purvi’s work at her website, and follow her on Twitter @PurviPoets.