March 1–7, 2021
Preeti Shah is a certified meditation teacher and has worked in physical therapy for seven years, specializing in geriatric care. She earned her BA in fine arts with a music concentration from Rider University, and studied Hindustani classical music with her guruji, Smt. Vijaya Rajkotia. This past fall, she was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Natalie Eilbert’s MFA Application Bootcamp.
Author photo by Nikita Parikh
Maa, an ancient river of wrinkles,
flooding with whitened locks.
Maa, a broken dam for eyes,
sputtering mantras like
Maa, prepare for pilgrimage—
journey the thousand temples of age spots
mapped on stressed epidermis.
Maa, your home has burned upon
Father’s pyre, and I put out the flames
of your sari with my charcoaled feet.
Maa, I walk in circles around you,
like Ganpati encircling Shiv and Parvati,
my broken world, you make whole.
The trilok, I circle—
my circumference limited to the length
of Father’s haar mala.
Each flower of the garland—
the years before him,
the years of him,
the years without him,
“Honor Maa in every step.”
—Originally published in Ariel’s Dream, August 2020.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
This poem was written for Vinodkumar Amulakh Shah and Rasila Vinodkumar Shah, my parents.
The inspiration for much of this poem has come from my interest in Hindu mythology. One story that resonated as a child was one where Shiv and Parvati asked their sons Ganpati and Kartikeya to race around the world as a challenge for a mango that would bestow the winner with knowledge and wisdom. The story goes on to show that Kartikeya, with the greater advantage, raced around the three worlds (trilok), but could not beat Ganpati, who encircled his own parents. For Ganpati, his entire universe was at the feet of his own parents.
In some traditions in India, out of respect, a haar mala (garland) is put around the photo of a deceased family member. This poem came out of the asking of a question—if a haar mala can be the physical circle that surrounds my father, what is the journey I must take upon it to honor his memory and demonstrate the love I have for my parents? While making the metaphorical journey, or pilgrimage, around the temple of my father’s photo, I wanted to also honor the journey my mother has taken, just by her very survival. I wanted to show, in the repetition of the word “Maa,” the repetition of pilgrimages I would take around my parents, the repetition of all her sacrifices and suffering since my father’s passing. I wanted her to be honored, in the same vein as my father. I wanted my journey, each footstep like each flower of the haar mala—“the years before him, the years of him, the years without him”—to be a promise to my father, that I would honor Maa in each step.
This promise to my Father is not my own, but one I share with my brother, Anand, my sister-in-law, Rujuta, and my husband, Neeraj.
What are you working on right now?
Right now, I am getting my life in order. The last couple years have been difficult for my family, and made me rethink my priorities. I have gradually moved towards treading a more spiritual path, where life feels more disciplined and simplified, and I am creating time to appreciate life and the things that truly matter. Through this, I feel I will gain better composure over my mind, body, energies, emotions, day and path in life.
What’s a good day for you?
Feeling gratitude in the morning for all aspects of life and that I woke up. Trying to bring joy into my day no matter what happens. Doing something for someone, where I have nothing to gain. Keeping discipline with meditative and creative practices. Finding time to be in nature. Smiling at everyone I pass by. Minimal to no time on technology. Caring for loved ones. Finishing the day writing all of the things I am grateful for, forgiving and not going to sleep upset.
What brought you to New York?
Memories, marriage and mangosteens.
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?
Home is wherever I feel at ease. Home is not a person, a place, a body, a mind. Home is unity with everything in the cosmos and all its organic matter. The inclusivity alone allows home to be infinite, leaving no room for loneliness and feelings of abandonment. If home is the breath I share with so many lives that I coexist with, then there should not be a nostalgic longing, but a feeling of abundance. I am working on this with my samatha.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
Growing up in Philly made the murals of Brooklyn feel very familiar. We are based in Queens, so visiting Brooklyn has always felt like a special occasion. My favorite occasions were going to Barbès for Innov Gnawa, and Roulette for Omar Sosa and Seckou Keita, where I was reminded of Penn Museum’s Summer Nights concert series. People are very kind and willing to help you in Brooklyn. Their dogs have better haircuts than I have. I love making it to Luanne’s Wild Ginger right before it closes, when open mic is over at 61 Local.
If you see a struggling person on the street, if you are not blind to their existence, they will likely have a story that will open your heart. For this reason, opening an eye, a heart, a pocket to help is more about saving our humanity and not seeing them as the other. This never goes unnoticed.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
A poetry community is like a supportive family. I found this with Brooklyn Poets at 61 Local. Everyone is caring and always lifts up others, especially when it is their first time on the open mic. A fellowship covering the cost of a Brooklyn Poets workshop also helped me when I was in need.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
I think every poet I’ve met in Brooklyn, through workshops in person and on Zoom and Wet Ink, has inspired and taught me how to be a more observant, more appreciative, more inclusive and more empathic writer and human being. I am thankful also to Jason Koo, the staff of Brooklyn Poets and all the Yawp instructors.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Pema Chödrön has said, “This very moment is the perfect teacher.” It seems in every moment, there is a person, a place, a thing, something to learn from, something to be inspired about. In that way, there have been innumerable poetry mentors.
I may not have understood the value of education when I was younger, but my teachers still brought value to my education and my life. Elizabeth Crockett Jones was my seventh and eighth grade English and homeroom teacher. She taught me so many coming-of-age lessons about life and spent endless hours trying to tutor me after school so I could have the reading comprehension and grammar level to prepare for high school. She gave me the confidence to read “Still I Rise” in front of my classroom. She made every book exciting for me to read, including To Kill a Mockingbird and Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry. She assigned my first chapbook, and taught me how I could express myself in my own writing, when I was a shy middle-schooler. She made me understand the value of language and expression.
Richard Lapides was only my teacher for a creative writing short story class, but it was my favorite class in high school. We would read different short stories from contemporary authors, and try to write our own stories while adopting the authors’ styles. He was the one who introduced me to “Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri. It was the first time I felt, This is my story! I never felt that way from any book I had ever read in school before that. It was our senior year, and right before ending the course, his last assignment was for us to write a story in our own style, so we could find our own voice before entering college. It was one of the most insightful classes that I had ever taken.
In addition to the staff and teachers at the Yawp, I want to also thank my teachers from workshops: Jay Deshpande, I.S. Jones, JP Howard, Hala Alyan and Natalie Eilbert, for always being generous with their instruction and time. I have been very lucky to learn from them. They all took time to help me analyze poems while finding possibilities rather than giving judgments, giving me prompts for inspiration, helping me develop creative ideas while allowing writing to be a joy and provided exceptional mentorship and support. They are lights in this world. It was a huge privilege, and Brooklyn Poets has always financially made this education possible.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
When I need a dose of humanity, I always return to Mary Oliver’s “Singapore” and “The Buddha’s Last Instruction.” How she expresses her observation of unity and humanity makes me cry many times. Because of the passing of my father, Kaveh Akbar’s “Learning to Pray” and Terrance Hayes’s “Sometimes the father almost sees looking” also feel especially tender. Ocean Vuong’s “Beginnings: New York” just awakens the consciousness.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Prison diaries of freedom fighters, wisdom of the elderly, spiritual texts from around the world. An ambition would be to learn and read Mahabharat in Sanskrit. I would like to read more from Thich Nhat Hanh, especially after taking retreat in a Buddhist monastery. Would like to learn more about Inner Engineering from Sadhguruji.
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 will put it this way, bookmarks have gathered a lot of real estate on my bookshelves. Unless I am in a quiet study or café, I have trouble getting through books fast. This isn’t a problem for me, because I love reading my favorite lines so many times, and then writing them in a separate journal. For me, reading is a labor of love. When I can, I like to support local bookshops, and find literary gems in there. Whether the book is physical or digital, each has its benefits and shares knowledge, so I am thankful for both versions.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
Sound as inspired by John Cage’s 4’33”.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Library or in some unassuming café with damn good cappuccinos.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I don’t know Brooklyn enough to have a favorite spot. I like to just walk around on the sidewalk right after it rains, and you can smell the sweet earth rising amongst the torn jeans and man buns.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate nothingness,
And what I dissolve into you return as equal sediment,
For every bit of matter that was destined to create me as good as the cosmos I bow down to within you.
If you left your umbrella at home, there are hundreds of places that will receive you with a warm welcome.