October 2–8, 2023
Shlagha Borah (she/her) is a queer multi-genre writer from Assam, India. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Salamander, Nashville Review, Identity Theory, Longleaf Review, Variant Literature, South Dakota Review, Passengers, Rogue Agent, the Hunger and elsewhere. She is pursuing an MFA in poetry at the University of Tennessee–Knoxville and is an associate poetry editor at Grist. She has received support for her work from the Sundress Academy for the Arts and was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow last year for study in I.S. Jones’s workshop on the aubade and poetry of grief. Borah is a co-founder of Pink Freud, a student-led collective working toward making mental health services accessible in India. Find her on IG @shlaghab and Twitter @shlaghaborah.
For Iqbal Bano, twelve years after her demise
after Franny Choi
your voice (that which makes me hum
and weep and sombre, that which turns
the heat of my fingers soft on the keyboard,
that loves, loves and loves until giving
feels like grieving and we remember how much
they have taken away, that which
our sisters sing to hope to resent to protest
to be angry to be kind and that which
warns us these scoundrels want to kill us
so we must keep singing) transcends poetry
—Originally published in long con, March 2022.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
This poem is a response to “Hum Dekhenge,” a protest song written by Faiz Ahmad Faiz and sung by Iqbal Bano. This song has been a symbol of dissent over many decades—during partition, during several regional movements and, more recently, during state-sponsored violence in 2019–20 following the revocation of Kashmir’s Article 370 autonomy and in Assam amid protests over citizenship reform targeting Muslims. I wanted to find a way to express how, whenever I hear her voice, there’s a glimmer of hope in a time of hopelessness. Formally, I was really inspired by Franny Choi’s “Weight,” in which most of the poem lives inside parentheses. That exploration of the unsaid—all the weight that lives beneath the words we voice—spoke to me.
What are you working on right now?
As part of my MFA thesis, I am working on a book-length project: a map of maternal ancestries that explores how matrilineage shapes identity. How we carry our mothers and grandmothers in us across cities and continents. In this project, I explore memory and grief in poems, nonfiction essays, artifacts and letters. It’s still in the initial stages, but it feels like I’m reaching out toward the South Asian immigrant experience and what it does to the female body.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day is whenever I get enough sleep! I’m teaching two classes right now in addition to my own coursework and writing a thesis, and I’m always exhausted. But whenever I can be outside, sipping bubble tea, soaking in the sun and laughing with my friends, I consider that to be a pretty good day!
Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
Delhi, India. I have never seen or been in a more crowded and chaotic city. It is disgusting, smelly, often unsafe, so noisy, and yet … there’s this unmistakable old-world charm to it. I lived there for five years: first for college and then for work. I haven’t been there in over a year, but my last visit was during the pandemic, and the city just felt so much quieter. I feel like it doesn’t compare to any other place in the world (not that I have been to that many—ha!) because it offers so many opportunities to be invisible and anonymous. In a place bustling with millions, your mistakes are so easily forgivable, and you can be a new person every day.
To describe Delhi, they say, “Yeh sheher nahi, mehfil hai,” which loosely translates to “It’s not a city, it’s a celebration,” and that sums it up perfectly for me.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
Unfortunately, I haven’t, but I REALLY want to!
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
Tenderness and joy! Having a warm and supportive group of people who cheer for you and your little poems can be so uplifting! I have been so fortunate to have a community both within and beyond grad school. I especially want to shout out Sundress Academy for the Arts and all their volunteers for being so active in the community—organizing readings, retreats, workshops and residencies—all for free! I recently joined Sundress as a reading series coordinator, and it’s been such a joy being able to celebrate poets from different parts of the country.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Audre Lorde, for sure. I only started getting familiar with American poets in the last couple of years, so I still have a long way to go! Also, shoutout to my Brooklyn Poets workshop instructor, Itiola Jones. She has been so kind and gracious in my writing journey, always pushing me forward to take more risks and believe in the work that I’m putting out in the world.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
The first workshop I ever took was with José Olivarez. That experience was monumental for me because I remember being so intimidated, but he was so kind and took so much time to provide thoughtful feedback on my work. I feel like my worldview was forever changed, and I started approaching my work with a lot more kindness. Next would be Gabrielle Bates, with whom I worked through Hugo House. She is the most patient and encouraging teacher I have ever worked with. Good mentors can change your life, and I think the time we spent in that workshop was proof of it. I feel like I became a better workshop peer after that. Finally, my first grad school workshop was with Destiny O. Birdsong, who told me, over and over again, to take up more space, be brave and ask more questions.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I recently read Mag Gabbert’s Sex Depression Animals and it was life-changing. I felt so held and seen in the way she writes about desire, hunger and grief. When I was reading her book, I was working on a chapbook project about desire and pleasure, and the timing felt very meaningful. I found several conversational threads between her work and mine.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I feel so embarrassed to say it, but Donika Kelly’s Bestiary. So many people have recommended this book to me over the years, and it’s always been one of the top books in my TBR pile, but I keep delaying reading it because I feel like it’s a book that deserves to be relished. I haven’t really had the headspace to sit with a book for an extended period of time for a while now.
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?
I usually read one book at a time (or try to, because if I don’t, my ADHD takes over and I end up with a huge pile of half-read books on my nightstand). Every time I read a fiction or nonfiction book, I have this strong thirst that only a book of poems can quench. So I always go back to poetry. I usually don’t plan my next read in advance. I’m a compulsive book-shopper, so I always have new books on my shelf and I pick one out at random. However, I have been trying to be very intentional about the books I am reading right now, because I am working on my thesis and looking for work that would inform mine. I love, love, love physical books and going to bookstores. I am an extensive note-taker, and I write on all the books I read, often with colorful pens!
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I have never written a sonnet! Somehow, I have always been intimidated by traditional forms and naturally veer toward free verse. But this year, I would like to step outside my comfort zone.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
By bodies of water. Rivers, lakes, oceans—I’ll take anything!
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I have never been to Brooklyn but I plan to visit in the spring, and I keep thinking about just going on a long, aimless walk.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate my country, this body
And what I yearn for is you singing to me,
For every night that salves me as good as a walk by the sea with you.
It is where rage and joy live together!