In the first part of her interview with The Aerogram, poet Preeti Kaur shared what it was like to grow up in California’s San Joaquin Valley and how her family’s traditions inspired her careful attention to language. She started formally studying and writing poems at UC Berkeley and thanks the day, exhausted from studying for an organic chemistry final, she ambled into a Poetry for the People reading.
The program was founded in 1991 in Berkeley by June Jordan, an acclaimed African-American poet, essayist, and activist. Jordan’s training and writing significantly influenced Kaur, who became a Student Teacher Poet in the program.
Continue reading to find out more about the background and inspirations of her poems “You Bring Out the Punjabi in Me,” “Where-Ever It Is Dark,” and “Letters Home.”
Actually, no, I’ve never done a public reading of this poem. The funny thing to me is that no one reads it as I intended. I intended it to be a manifesto on the only true culture, which is not the homogenous dictates of popular culture or some faux nostalgia, but is what I live in my personal daily practice.
Well, that was one purpose. Some of the lines were also intended to be love-poem-ish, but I never got around to reading the poem to the intended recipient. Sometimes love poems bury themselves in poems which sound like they are about something else.
In “Where-Ever It Is Dark” the voice is one of a young Sikh boy who wears a patka and is bullied at school. What inspired you to write it?
I wrote the poem in response to a friend disclosing that his 8-year-old nephew, with whom I had become buddies, had gotten into a fight at school because of his patka and was distraught at having to defend his identity as he knew it. In one way, it is inspired by all the young men I have known in my life who have grown up with a patka.
It’s very fashionable amongst Sikh men these days to celebrate their turbans and flaunt their turbans as an accessory representing a resilient attitude (more power to them), to reverse the “post-9/11 gaze” and assert their personal humanity, but for young children, especially those growing up in the “West,” wearing a head covering is wrought with confusing complications. They are simultaneously juggling questions of who they are as people, who they are as small bodies, and who they are as bodies in forms that are presented different from their peers.In one way, it is inspired by all the young men I have known in my life who have grown up with a patka. My younger brothers, cousins in America and even cousins in India all came home from school crying routinely, after getting into an argument after being picked on for their patka. They would have their patkas ripped off their heads, be beaten up, and often relied on anger as a childhood coping strategy. The poem doesn’t derive specifically from any one of their experiences, although they each might insist I am utilizing their personal story, but comes from this trend of witnessing so many boys go through an unnecessary hazing on the playground.
I recognize being bullied is not the experience for all young Sikhs in the West, but for many growing up in isolated environments, outside of the big cosmopolitan cities where people are more aware and accepting, becoming a scapegoat for everyone’s lack of understanding is common even today.
You’ve described “Letters Home” as a “collection of poems which seek to connect the tragedy in Oak Creek with the larger narrative of violence in the name of deep-seeded racial hatred in this country.” (StarTribune) How did you manage to write those poems in the aftermath of the tragedy, posting just five days after the event? What propelled you to make the connection to poetry?
Those poems were born out of the depressing realization that the Sikh community’s living nightmare over the past decade had come true. Obviously, it was a horribly sad and angering event, if one can call a mass murder in a place where people seek spiritual sanctuary an “event.” The poems were a build-up of the surface tension within me.
I had written a few of the poem’s lines months earlier, regarding Bhagat Singh Thind’s ashes and how I felt his assertion that he was an American, in spite of the problematic way he went about it, continued to be denied. I had a professional interview where the first question the interviewer asked me was how long I had been in the country. I had a professional interview where the first question the interviewer asked me was how long I had been in the country. This bothered me tremendously and wrecked my ability to relate to this interviewer from the get-go.
I put those thoughts about being a perpetual foreign body into the imagery of Bhagat Singh Thind’s ashes, dispersed amongst five rivers spanning United States’ geography. When the killings in Oak Creek happened, I kept thinking about the extreme consequences of the notion of perpetual foreigner in this nation.When the killings in Oak Creek happened, I kept thinking about the extreme consequences of the notion of perpetual foreigner in this nation. At the most benign level, I might be asked offensive questions in a biased professional interview and denied an opportunity. At the most extreme level, a man in a turban, whether he has been in this country for decades or months, might be shot dead. I felt I needed to write to Bhagat Singh Thind again, at his post office box in Astoria, Washington.
There were also so many conflicting media messages coming out at the time, where our organizational and community representatives were consumed with engaging in the performance of education of the masses, the media, and government entities. I think, as Sikhs, our community traumas in America sometimes take a backburner to feeding packaged information to outsidersI think, as Sikhs, our community traumas in America sometimes take a backburner to feeding packaged information to outsiders, in the hope that next time it won’t happen again, although we all realize that the information we are offering in sound bites, pamphlets and presentations pales in comparison to systemic racism and its far reaches.
I felt that someone, maybe me, needed to put something out into the world which spoke to all of our different embodiments — as hyphenated people, as Sikh-Americans, as Sikhs who are part of a kaum in the global sense, as an immigrant community, as citizens of the world, as citizens of this nation. That is how I framed the various letters, invoking historical memory.
I wrote the poems over three sleepless nights, after watching CNN for hours until my brain felt numb. Poetry, as June Jordan taught me, is a medium for telling the truth, so that is why that series of poems was born — to tell my truth.
After the shootings at the gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, you asked “why a tragedy against a minority racialized community does not deserve the dignity of a President’s gesture of shared national grief.” Did Michelle Obama’s visit to Oak Creek change the way you feel?
I was disappointed that the President didn’t take the time to visit the families of the Oak Creek mass shooting. Michelle Obama is not an elected official, so while her visit was an appreciated kindness, it did feel to me that the racially-motivated deaths in Oak Creek were less significant to the President’s political agenda at the time than other mass shootings.I wondered if the President’s handlers felt that he shouldn’t appear in any photos with brown turbaned individualsI wondered if the President’s handlers felt that he shouldn’t appear in any photos with brown turbaned individuals, given it was election season and we still live in a super-sad existence of guilt-by-association, where the assumption is that a brown man in a turban could be a national threat. Tonight, as I wrote these words, the President mentioned Sikhs and Oak Creek in his State of the Union speech, so perhaps he has decided it is time to speak candidly on Sikhs as also Americans. At the same time, I know his visit would have only been symbolic.At the same time, I know his visit would have only been symbolic. If we were to discuss true issues of fairness and justice, we would be asking very biting questions. Why does the War on Terror continue to exist? Why do declared and undeclared combatants die daily from drone warfare around the world in a borderless war? What does it mean when the President mourns the horrific deaths of innocent children from gun violence in this country — declaring rapid action that this will never again happen — but does not make the same urgent declarations at the innocent deaths of children in a small village in Panjshir, Afghanistan, or at the innocent deaths of children droned in Northern Pakistan?
These questions are very deep questions of what it means to be a citizen of the United States of America in a time of war. They relate intimately to why so often in casual conversation or on the evening television when gun violence in America is discussed, Oak Creek is skipped in the litany of recent tragedies, as if certain types of deaths of certain types of people are acceptable.
For more on the poetry, essays, and other writings of Preeti Kaur, visit her site “The World I Stitch.”