Ms. Muse: Purvi Shah Resists Erasure and Rewrites History with Feminist Poetry

Ms. Muse is a discovery place for riotous, righteous and resonant feminist poetry that nourishes and gives voice to a rising tide of female resistance—brought to you by Ms. digital columnist Chivas Sandage.


“From a young age,” says poet and social justice advocate Purvi Shah, “I had a passion for questions.”

As a systems change consultant, Shah has asked tough questions about domestic violence against women—and the relationships between structural, state, community and interpersonal violence—and then provided transformative research and strategies. Last year, in partnership with the Center for Court Innovation and the NYC Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence, Shah worked for one year to answer this one: How do we interrupt cultures and cycles of violence? In the process, she worked to “re-envision” the city’s abusive partner intervention programs and authored a 200-page report, Seeding Generations, on how to support survivors and break cycles.

In 2014, with the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence, Shah authored a 42-page report on the significance of language access for immigrant survivors of violence, arguing that “language access is not only a question of fairness but also of justice.” Currently, Shah leads trainings for that institute as well as anti-racist trainings for educators with the Center for Racial Justice in Education, and also finds time to support the Women of Color Network in its mission to end gender violence. In 2008, she won the inaugural SONY South Asian Excellence Award for Social Service for her work to end violence against women.  

Shah’s poetry asks hard questions, too. Her just-released second book, Miracle Marks, “investigates gender inequity and American racism through Hindu iconography and philosophy.” Her debut poetry collection, Terrain Tracks, won the Many Voices Project Prize and was nominated for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Members’ Choice Award. She also directed Together We Are New York, a community-based poetry project that amplified Asian American voices during the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

Shah wants her poetry to inspire dialogue, center women of color and emphasize the power communities have to create change. She describes herself as striving to be a voice for “brown girls and women who relish in spirit, intellect, politics and justice.”

In this installment of Ms. Muse, Shah shares two never-before-published poems and speaks with Ms. about the power of feminist poetry to rewrite history (“often a story of erasures”) and to “decolonize” ourselves and our world.  

Poet Purvi Shah (photo by Neha Gautam)

THE POEMS

Saraswati births a revolutionary at the shrine shut to women

“Millions of Indian women joined hand-in-hand along the 620 km long stretch from the northern tip to the southern end of Kerala, to form a ‘women’s wall’ against the religious conservatives who have been opposing the Supreme Court verdict that allowed the entry of menstruating women in the Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala.” “Women’s Wall in Kerala is historic moment for gender equality,” The Times of India, Jan. 2, 2019

Sometimes a man gets between you and God.
 
Sometimes you let the man get between you.
 
Sometimes a man gets between God              and you.
 
Sometimes you let            between you.
 
Sometimes you                 have no choice. Sometimes you have
 
some
choice. You pray for difference
between the two. These shrines cordoned &
 
– who
 
taunts gravity
with mountaintop
sanctuaries? Who
 
makes the pass
 
so
narrow
a pregnant
woman could
 
not       enter? In
 
delirium, burst
 
all that has been mind-kindled. Praise it as
 
smolder of you,
original thunder,
my fourth
eye, this universe
to which only I can grant
 
entry
– or exit.

Frida’s casa, a house held by azul

“Through her blatant display of Mexicanidad, Frida Kahlo has remained a fashion icon… Due to her physical ailments, Kahlo spent much of her life homebound in La Casa Azul. As she was unable to travel, friends would often visit and gift her clothing and textiles from their own travels she then incorporated into her dress…As the various examples of footwear, corsets and prosthetic devices she relied on to physically support her demonstrate, Kahlo gained power from clothing, which she also painted and decorated.” – Michelle McVicker, “How Frida Kahlo Used Fashion to Make a Statement on Her Othered and Disabled Body,” Remezcla, March 21, 2019

Her corset is an apple inside
 
out, pulp as a palette,
breath in bristles, spit
 
of wings, sky-
muscling. When bones
 
need to be upheld, what does one
do? Twist hunt into hunt, hunt
 
into strength, hunt into ardor. Imagine
 
you are the original, you
are the reproduction –
 
you are salvia in the glass-
blower’s vase, awaiting
 
all the blues
the reckless
 
muralists destroyed
in their lips – savor
 
constriction, savor
 
fastenings – this indigenous
silk of bruise & genius.

THE INTERVIEW

Can you tell me about your process of writing these three poems? 

Each of these poems had a different process of emerging into the world. Some of my poems start with a feeling, an idea, a phrase. Others come like a river, clear and flowing to their end. Another may be sparked by traveling on the NYC subway. In general, my poems riff on experience, draw upon observation to further wisdom and are rooted in sensation and felt knowledge.

These two poems evolved through time. The Frida poem began in 2009 and the Saraswati poem in 2012 as part of the development of my second book, Miracle Marks, which just entered the world. I had begun with an idea, an image—and I needed more anchor, more juice, more wonder. More felt wisdom for the poems. This wisdom came in 2019: I was inspired by gender rights activism in India as well as my experience moving through the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. These moments helped me draw out connections while rooting the language, helped me crystallize and open space in ways I could not imagine when I began the poems. For me, writing is part record, part discovery. These poems testify to that.

What childhood experiences with language informed your relationship with poetry?

As an immigrant, I came to poetry as a way of being home in English, in the United States. My parents had taught me to read in English (my second language) very young. I was a voracious reader—libraries were my home.

Part of my time growing up, we lived in rural Georgia—the only family of color in a poor white community. My white teachers were threatened by me—and my ability to read. For reading ahead in assignments, they chastised and shamed me. From these experiences, at an early age, I connected language to power—and felt aware of my brown body. Of being marked as a brown girl. I stepped back to observe the world and understand it through language.

I am now working to step up and re-create the world—and my experiences—through language. Poetry is a way to re-vision our world, how we navigate it, how we live in it, how we expand in it. Poetry has helped me re-claim my voice, sense of self and to feel. Poetry enables me to decolonize.

Do you seek out poetry by women and nonbinary writers? If so, since when and why? More specifically, how has the work of feminist poets mattered in your childhood and/or your life as an adult?

Yes—and yes. Growing up, I loved the strangeness and compact power of Emily Dickinson. Students encounter her often, as I did. Through my voracious reading, I also experienced Audre Lorde’s poems in high school. I felt connected to their vibrant shimmer, their boldness. I’m grateful I met Lorde’s words so young.

In college, I finally experienced Asian American poetry. This opened worlds and made me aware of how limited education often is in this country. How so few of our stories are shared. And I deepened in understanding Dickinson from new vantages. Which is to say, my world continues to expand because of feminist artists: the work of feminists has been crucial to my writing and addressing our world.

These days, I’m excited by so many writers furthering creativity and justice: Tamiko Beyer, Gabrielle Civil, Madhu Kaza, Rosamond S. King, Sahar Muradi, Zohra Saed, Sun Yung Shin and more. Their work—and community—inspires me and opens space for wonder and being.

What groundbreaking (or ancient) works, forms, ideas and issues in poetry today interest and/or concern you?

In South Asia, poetry is heard every day. People respond in conversations with poetry, sing it, share it. I’m interested in this poetry as part of the fabric of existence. As part of our humanity and ways of being in the world. I’m interested in ghazals, bhakti poets including Mirabai, and the evolutions of these forms with contemporary formats. As someone who has worked with visual artists and dancers, I’m interested in poetry as seen and felt through the body. Poetry as life, as living.

As a woman, and as a woman who writes, what do you need to support your work? What opportunities, support, policies and actions can/could make a direct difference for you—and for other women writers you know?

I am the first artist in my family. Many artists in the United States, as recent studies show, come from lineages of wealth and whiteness. In my life, my college comradery with two other women poets made me a writer. My friend Gabrielle Civil, a Black woman performance artist, just published her second book as well! I’m proud of us—for creating paths. For creating!

Having a community of other artists and mentors who are women and folks of color has made all the difference. One of my first poetry mentors was Thylias Moss. She gave me a bold vision for the possibilities of poetry—content, craft, aesthetics. My mind—blown. And when she signed one of her books for me, she foretold that one day I would be signing books for her. Her oracle from 1994 beckoned dream into reality. I’m grateful also to Jen Bervin who served as an adept doula for Miracle Marks. Alongside mentors, organizations such as the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective, Kundiman, Cave Canem and Poets House have made my work possible and visible. Art requires community—and resources.

Our work would be more possible with funding for the arts and art production. And, fundamentally, a shift from capitalist cultures of production and the violences of capitalism would open space for art, connection, collaboration and community.

You’ve brought up an important issue—the relationship between wealth, whiteness and the arts in America—and the privilege you describe profoundly effects writers and other artists who cannot afford to create new works because other jobs pay the bills. Or a writer is asked to write for free when they can’t afford to volunteer their time. Or a writer works several jobs that pay in order to have the privilege to write, while earning small, symbolic fees and honorariums when lucky enough to publish.

What was it like to be the first artist in your family? How did your family respond to your interest in making a life in art? 

Having no roadmap for art has been both a struggle and a gift for finding chosen lineages. At my book launch for Miracle Marks, my friend and brilliant writer Madhu Kaza spoke to the lineages we can claim from the long history of South Asian women writing. She illuminated the possibilities for our arts being connected to a wider fabric, a rooting beyond family which is yet a rooting.

Being the first artist that I know of in my family means I can choose artistic lineages—and keeps me grounded in the details of everyday living. I am grateful to be connected to the textures of everyday immigrant concerns and ways. My parents frequently joke about being able to understand only 10 percent of my poems—and they have always shown up for my book launches and celebrated my work. Their love teaches that love doesn’t always require understanding. Another incarnation of solidarity, of shared joy. In this way, being an artist has opened space for relationship, for moving across worlds and for finding home in new ways.

How has the current political climate in the U.S. affected you as a woman and as a writer?

To know the people’s truths, we must have poetries. History is often a story of erasures. Poetry and art by our communities ensures a record of experience and visions for our humanity and justice. In this moment of increasing intolerance and violence, I find that art is a necessary force for democracy and community strength. Poetry brings forth truth-telling, sharing of what otherwise will be unheard and erased. I find that this moment pushes me not only to write and create but also to build power with other artists to imagine and make possible the world we seek to live in—a world which honors our dreams and aliveness.

What current and upcoming plans and projects excite you?

After an 11-year labor, I’m celebrating my second book, Miracle Marks, emerging into the world! I’m excited to share these poems on women, the sacred, and gender and racial equity—and engage folks in their experiences of gender and justice. Through the book, I’m creating space for connection and change-making.

I love poetry in community and the life of language in collaboration. I’m thrilled that on August 4 at the Asian American Literature Festival in Washington, D.C., I got to co-create a space for art as healing with amazing advocates and creatives Krittika Ghosh, Executive Director of the Asian/Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Resource Project, and Sunu P. Chandy, Legal Director of the National Women’s Law Center. I also have readings through the fall. Connect with me @PurviPoets or www.purvipoets.net to hear about events: I’d love to build community and further justice with you and Ms. Muse readers!

Ms. Muse: Purvi Shah Resists Erasure and Rewrites History with Feminist Poetry

About

Chivas Sandage is a digital columnist at Ms. and the author of Hidden Drive, a finalist for the 2012 ForeWord Book of the Year Awards in poetry. Her poems and essays have appeared in Ms., The Rumpus, Salmagundi, Southern Humanities Review and Texas Observer, among others. She is at work on a nonfiction book about the double shooting of a lesbian teenage couple in Texas. Tweet her @ChivasSandage.