Coolitude poetics interview with Divya M. Persaud
Divya M. Persaud is a planetary scientist, composer, and writer of Indo-Caribbean heritage. With an ongoing focus in remote sensing for planetary geology and geophysics, Divya’s research experience includes participation in the 2015 NASA Ames Academy for Space Exploration; the 2014 National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) in astrobiology at the SETI Institute; the 2013 NSF REU in physics at her alma mater, University of Rochester; the 2011–12 NASA INSPIRE internship at Goddard Space Flight Center; and a recent internship at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She is pursuing her PhD in Mars imaging at UCL.
Divya is also the author of the upcoming book do not perform this, which won an Editor’s Choice Award (‘Great’ Indian Poetry Collective, 2018) and two self-published works, color (2016) and de caelo et tellure (2014). She is additionally the composer of the self-produced song cycle/album THEY WILL BE FREE (2017). Her writing and music incorporate her polymathic background and transcend form to discuss memory, human connection, and the double-diaspora experience.
Divya hopes to be the first cellist on Mars.
Rajiv Mohabir: Congratulations on winning the 2017 Editor’s Choice Prize from the (Great) Indian Poetry Collective! They are doing good work and you have placed your book in a wonderful place. Can you talk a little about your writing life? The manuscript that was selected is tentatively titled do not perform this: a song cycle and is very varied in its form and artistic concerns.
Divya Persaud: Thank you so much! I’ve been mostly involved in self-publishing in the past few years — desiring the complete control of this process, especially as my two previous books involved graphic design and photography — but do not perform this is my greatest pride so far, and I’m grateful for this opportunity. The work calls itself a song cycle because each piece is a score of contemporary music whose primary instruction is that none of the pieces can be performed, thus rendering each piece a poem with its own instruction on performance. I pull a lot of reference to minimalist musical practice as well as my own deep interest in performance art and avant-garde music to directly interrogate the silences that we take on and for different reasons. I thus consider each poem an exploration of silence and hope to draw a colorful journey of different silences across the work.
Rajiv Mohabir: Your poems in this collection signal the outside of the text as the space of performance. The title alone does that work. You are also an accomplished cellist. How have music and other art forms influenced your poetry?
Divya Persaud: In the past three years, I’ve transitioned from cello into focusing quite a lot on my composition. The past century in Western composition features many challenges to classical music structure and the relationships between composers, performers, and audience. In studying this history and developing my own style of composition, I’ve been thinking about ways to deconstruct and even reconstruct these relationships in poetry. But I’ve also been applying a critical lens both within Western tradition and looking at the dual poetic and musical history of South Asia for methods of this deconstruction. In these investigations, I’ve found that my developing styles of rhythm, melody, form, and tone color my music and writing in very similar ways, which has been fascinating and often less of a choice and more of a happy surprise. I think that’s what led me directly to this idea for the collection.
Rajiv Mohabir: You have some poems in this forthcoming collection that reference Indian Indenture history — specifically your poem “ode to the” that acknowledges the journey that your ancestor made to Guyana in the late 1800s. How else has this history of the Coolie trade influenced your creative work?
Divya Persaud: It’s been a really difficult concept to detangle, actually, personally, of course, but also artistically. I’ve always wanted to write about or in response to this history but without the effect of the gaze or trivializing a history that touches the diaspora in diverse ways. This is a history marked by tragic ethnopolitical ideas of agency. So, if anything, having this heritage has made me really step back from both my writing and music to deliberate on narrative, responsibility, and time, and to be patient with myself. “ode to the” plays with this idea — that our bodies, memories, and emotions bear the mark of our ancestors, through space-time, even as we try to grapple with the history in the present day and may not understand it. I hope to at least tease apart the complex time-space relationships we have with ourselves and our ancestors, and I put that perpetual work in progress directly in writing with the hope of maximizing my artistic honesty.
With respect to my music, I do a lot of reclamation work in writing using the raga system and with reference to the tala system in my melody, harmony, and rhythm with as much integrity to original forms as possible. But I want to carve out a style that is clearly both diasporic and within a new, contemporary South Asian music. This is a personal process but lets me represent who I am and learn about my homeland.
Rajiv Mohabir: Your collection can be read as a set of musical instructions with a complicated form and structure poem by poem but also as an entire manuscript. You are now having a poetic and artistic conversation with the Indian subcontinent directly through your work. What does this mean to you — specifically after almost 120 years in diaspora — for your poems to travel back across the Kalapani?
Divya Persaud: This was really heavy when I was composing this work. There are many reasons why I married the concepts of text and music, but one of the primary ones was that we come from a heritage of oral history and history through musical storytelling. I had to be as honest with myself as possible with how to respect this legacy and not just make this form a gimmick. Many of the instructions in the piece are physically impossible because they transcend time or are for entities without human agency; as you say, this is my way of directly speaking with the subcontinent, with the ocean, with my ancestors, and with the land I now occupy. Writing this work let me feel upset at how impossible this is, but to also carve out a bit of justice in speaking on it, and imagining the unreal as material through a dramatic lens from our own art history. I get to map out my own complex existence across generations in many dimensions; realize sound from the instructed silence. In this way, the book has given me much peace.
Rajiv Mohabir: You are so multitalented and brilliant in your diversified artistic expressions. I was wondering if you can outline a few of the other projects that you are currently working on?
Divya Persaud: Thank you so much! I’m about to release a self-produced song collection called THEY WILL BE FREE, which uses contemporary composition and epic storytelling to weave a speculative tale about space exploration. The story involves a single astronaut being sent on a “grand tour” mission to astrobiological targets in the galaxy, but touches on ideas of home, refuge, and diaspora. I’m quite excited as it features many talented artists and friends (including you!) as sort of the other “side” of “do not perform this” in the music-poetry continuum. Otherwise, I have a few new poems going into an upcoming anthology of Indian poetry in English, and I’m also collaborating with friend, vocalist, poet, and songwriter Najia Khaled as a chamber pop duo.