July 10–16, 2017
Known for her sparkly eyeshadow and raucous laughter, Purvi Shah is curious about language as dreamwork for love, transformation and justice. During the tenth anniversary of 9/11, she directed Together We Are New York, a community-based poetry project to highlight Asian American voices and experiences. Her book Terrain Tracks plumbs migrations and belongings while her chaplet Dark Lip of the Beloved—Sound Your Fiery God-Praise explores women and being. Her fiction has appeared in NonBinary Review and her nonfiction has been published in the Huffington Post, the Feminist Wire, Delirious Hem and VIDA Review. For her leadership fighting gender violence, she won the inaugural SONY South Asian Social Services Excellence Award. “Signs There Is a Hole in Manhattan” appears in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, released this spring.
Author photo by Willi Wong
Signs There Is a Hole in Manhattan
What outlasts all this business and craziness is poetry
Die-hard New Yorkers gaze at the twin ends
of the island and cannot determine which path
leads downtown. The new city immigrants are white sheets
garbed in Kodachrome and public telephone numbers. Call
any day, any time. People are unequivocally welcoming—
city strangers go to greet everyone, lingering.
The immigrants are outnumbered only by patriots
in their tricolored regalia. Old immigrants adopt
this new passport to safety. Lanky white women escort
groups of Muslim children to reach primary school.
Burkha-clad women refrain from public conversation,
skirt quickly through streets. Union Square
is the new civic center. Through the day,
through the night, the public carves the ground.
According to the sign taped to the cragged concrete,
the coffee cart man is a block north.
Every house glows with a TV buzz. Subway riders
over the Manhattan Bridge are pulled like moths
to the windows on the track to Canal St. Underground
transit is subject to detour. Some of the lines are reported missing—
Q diamond runs express. Q circle is local and becomes R.
W is N until Brooklyn when it’s J or M or Z. Q=R; W=N—
words with absent hearts: queer or when. So much is beyond delineation,
beyond the circuits of language, like missing=bombs=smoked solace.
—From Terrain Tracks, New Rivers Press, 2006 (originally published in Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry)
Tell us about the making of this poem.
“Signs There Is a Hole in Manhattan” emerged in the aftermath of 9/11. I lost a friend, a fellow volunteer at Sakhi for South Asian Women, in the Twin Towers. Along with other Sakhis and New Yorkers, I helped organize the first peace rally in Brooklyn to counter racist backlash and calls for war. The political climate today is not so far removed from the context which birthed this poem.
What are you working on right now?
I am wrapping up a community-based art project, Social Crossings, exploring the present-day relevance of the Underground Railroad and abolition in Grinnell, Iowa (which was founded as an abolitionist town). I’m working to get my second poetry book, Miracle Marks, published. With Anjali Deshmukh, I’m exploring how to combine art practice and process in nonprofit consulting and social change work. And I’m learning how to drum Afro-Brazilian music with Batalá New York.
What’s a good day for you?
Starting leisurely. Making an impact. Connecting with people in the real and authentically. Watching birds—or my plants grow. Learning something. Creating. Sharing laughter.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
Rumors and aspirations.
Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
Once I was on a plane, writing. A college student sitting next to me struck up a conversation. When I said I lived in Brooklyn, he said, “Oh, do you live in Park Slope?” The cliché fit, I had to admit. What is not the typical story is that I have lived in my apartment for twenty years. The neighborhood has changed dramatically since I moved in. When I first came, there were many Middle Eastern and Latinx families in my area especially. The people of color now tend to be young professionals. I feel lucky to be near Prospect Park—as a former Southerner, the green space makes city living possible for me.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Joining in the moon-gazing night (fancy scientific telescopes provided) on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade with friends—iconic Brooklyn interfacing with the cosmos.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
Space to grow, take risks, write in connection with others and the world. I have found poetry and arts community here—especially with Kundiman, the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective, Cave Canem, Poets House and the Poetry Project. Especially as the first artist in my immigrant family, being in an arts community is crucial for me.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Zohra Saed, founder of UpSet Press, is a marvel and a riot of brilliance. I can’t wait for more of her brilliance to reach the world. April Naoko Heck, a fellow Kundiman member, whose visual writing process and poems bring me insight and elegance. Rosamond S. King, whose practice of embodiment while breaking language apart is stunning.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I had the great fortune of taking workshops with Thylias Moss in college. Having a brilliant Black woman mentor opened up poetry, questions, and the world. I also found spark and challenge in two of my workshop colleagues—Gabrielle Civil and Julia Cole. Our companionship, constant collaboration and shared joy of language enabled me to be a poet.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Sun Yung Shin’s Unbearable Splendor is a marvel. From its forms to its excavation of the (in)hospitability of nation and language, Sun Yung’s book is wise, heart-aching and necessary.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I would list them but the list is infinite and I’d have less time to read them. Right now, I’m in the midst of reading All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders and it’s too too good.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
Physical books only. I take notes but on Post-its—I don’t want to scar the page. I’m often reading multiple kinds of books/texts simultaneously. After a year spent reading all of Octavia Butler’s books, I’m trying to read contemporary speculative fiction by women. After I finish All the Birds in the Sky, I have books by Roshani Chokshi and N. K. Jemisin lined up.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
On the subway and trains generally—for which my first book, Terrain Tracks, is evidence.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Prospect Park. The piers. And so many of the places folks gather to celebrate, create and dream.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate sparkle,
And what I secret into skin, you remember as tender ache,
For every memory-to-be in me as good as the stunned delight
Because you can’t sleep until you get there.