RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
April brings spring showers and also a downpour of new poems. One collection out this poetry month comes from Amit Majmudar. He's a doctor, a radiologist and, beginning this year, Ohio's first ever poet laureate. Majmudar's poetry often highlights his Indian-American identity, like this excerpt from "Star-Spangled Turban."
AMIT MAJMUDAR: Hot pink frosting on my chocolate-cupcake noggin, switched-on lightbulb-yellow, tulip-bulb top-heavy orange, sky blue, bruise blue, navy thought cloud, darkening.
MONTAGNE: Majmudar grew up between cultures. He was born in the U.S., but his parents took him back to India for a time as a child. That experience gave rise to a feeling of not belonging in either place. So...
MAJMUDAR: I just found my way into the library. I became a citizen of the library. And to this day, I feel at ease only in a crowd of books, to be honest with you. In some ways, I feel like I am a book.
MONTAGNE: This book, his new collection of poems, has as its title an ethnic slur, "Dothead."
So what possessed you to make the title of your book?
MAJMUDAR: Well, if you look at racial slurs like this, there is a way to retake it, the N-word, for example. Rappers have taken that word back. And it's still off-limits to those outside of the sort of circle. But internally, it's something that they call each other. And in this way, you kind of take it back from the people who use it against you. And "Dothead" actually relates to something very beautiful and eloquent related to Hindu symbolism. And for me, the dot on the head is something that I associate with my mom. My wife wears one every once in a while when we go to, you know, an Indian wedding or something like that. And above all, it has this religious meaning for me. And so I wanted to take it back, and I wanted to make a poem out of it.
MONTAGNE: Would you please then read at least the beginning of the poem "Dothead?"
MAJMUDAR: Sure. It takes place in a high school cafeteria. That's where it starts. (Reading) Well, yes, I said. My mother wears a dot. I know they said third eye in class, but it's not an eye eye, not like that. It's not some freak third eye that opens on your forehead like on some Chernobyl baby. What it means is, what it's showing is there's this unseen eye on the inside, and she's marking it. It's how the X that says where treasure's at is not the treasure but as good as treasure. All right, what I said wasn't half so measured. In fact, I didn't say a thing. Their laughter had made my mouth go dry. Lunch was after world history. That week was India - myths, caste system, suttee, all the greatest hits.
MONTAGNE: Now suttee, just to make sure people understand what that is.
MAJMUDAR: Widow burning, basically, after the death of the husband, the widow would jump on his pyre. And it was a practice in some parts of India that was eradicated during the time of the British Empire.
MONTAGNE: So you are there with white kids, as you say. I was sitting with friends. But they weren't quite understanding what's going on.
MAJMUDAR: Right. You know, I think it has to do with the way India was taught. You know, naturally, they're going to teach the most interesting things and interesting meaning, you know, the most barbaric customs of the past. And when, you know, a bunch of high school-aged kids are taught about widow burning and the caste system and all those things, it's hard to make them realize that it doesn't mean anything to me, and it's not what makes me Indian, and it doesn't have anything to do with my Indianness or my Hinduism. And I think that was part of the problem for me, the sense that I was being associated with things that didn't really matter to my experience of my religion and my experience of my parents' culture.
MONTAGNE: Well, you know, thinking about your day profession, a radiologist, and your life as a poet, I wonder how they come together. Is a poem not unlike an X-ray?
MAJMUDAR: You know, it all has to do with pattern. And for me, poetry is pattern speech. And at work, as a radiologist, what I'm doing is looking at X-rays, CT scans, PET scans. Those all have a certain pattern of normal anatomy. And whether it's stroke, cancer, trauma, those things disrupt the pattern of normal anatomy. And so what I do is I recognize the patterns of disease. And when I go home and write my poems, I'm basically creating patterns in language. For me, it has this mathematical musical aspect to it that quickens it into poetry.
MONTAGNE: I wonder if you would read at least parts of the poem "Radiology."
MAJMUDAR: Sure. (Reading) Each pixel, a point geometry defines dimensionless, no height, no width, no depth. I see what ails the body, by regressing body back to spirit, the volume, a stack of planes, the plane, a row of lines, the line, a string of points. And the point at last, nothing at all, all form, substanceless by radiologic proof. I read no images more imaginary than the minds, every layer of it in material, the gray matter, the white matter, the dark.
MONTAGNE: That's part of a series of poems that touch on many things, stem cells.
MAJMUDAR: Right. What I did is - the sequence is called logomachia, which means war of words. And I have it set up like a sonnet. So the poems that, quote-unquote, "rhyme with one another" have similar themes, basically. So it's kind of a war between science and religion.
MONTAGNE: I'm going to take a wild guess and say that you became a radiologist because your parents were doctors and...
MAJMUDAR: And my sister and my brother-in-law and everybody.
MAJMUDAR: So I had to keep up with the Majmudars. That's absolutely right. It was just the family profession. I think that if, you know, if they'd owned a restaurant, I would've taken over the restaurant. If they'd been lawyers, I'd be a lawyer right now. I'm pretty sure about that.
MONTAGNE: So are they proud, though, that you are now also the poet laureate of Ohio?
MAJMUDAR: (Laughter) Yes, you know, they're over the moon about it. And they are not necessarily poetry readers, but they love my poetry (laughter). And I'm so happy that they're happy about it. They know that I've been doing this since I was 11 or 12 in obscurity and with no hope, really. I didn't - I never really had any hope that I would end up getting a book published or becoming laureate or anything like that. So for them, they've seen the whole arc holed up in my bedroom when I was a little kid, you know, just trying to rhyme and trying to figure out how to write poems. And they're seeing it all come to fruition now.
MONTAGNE: Amit Majmudar's new collection of poems is called "Dothead." He is the poet laureate of Ohio. Thank you very much for joining us.
MAJMUDAR: Thank you very much for having me.
MONTAGNE: You are listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
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