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A Conversation With Jhani Randhawa About Their Poetry Collection “Time Regime”

The rain said Go and return as discourse.
– from “Scriation II: Recrystallize” in Time Regime
Jhani Randhawa, with Teo Rivera-Dundas, is the co-founding editor of rivulet, “an experimental journal dedicated to the investigations of the interstitial.” Time Regime, Randhawa’s first collection of poems, occupies the same fissurescape. Indeed, they wrote: “I wanted to name the collection after this moment, where the regime dissolves for a brief interval.” Here we are, perched on a rapidly eroding shore, the shore of a world that is leaving us. Just ahead in the near distance, those waves: ready or not, that is the world that is coming for us. Time Regime, winner of the 2021 Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize, is a field guide to the gaps, an atlas of fugue states.

Randhawa is a queer* Kenyan-Punjabi/Anglo-American maker across mediums living in unceded Kumeyaay territory in southern California. In a continent-spanning, cosmos-wide phone conversation, we plumbed loss, time, and other queer elementals.

This interview has been condensed for clarity and concision.

When I shock open, I meet the dream
– Time Regime
Hours before our scheduled interview, a phone call punctures my sleep. Emir, my first lover, is dead. That’s what her son tells me, as I fall backwards into a bottomless black. Decades ago Emir cast a line into the now-extinct sea of Yahoo! Personals and pulled up a hook-up (me) who became family (us). After I get the news, I am stilled while the world still does its worlding; as the minutes tick by as if she hasn’t just died, I am deep inside some kind of carapace: my skin is already trying to learn how to live without her.

I considered canceling our phone chat, but then I decided to pick up Time Regime yet again. I had been moved by Randhawa’s language before, but this time, post-Emir, was different. I was softened, pricked, entered. Accompanied. I was once again reminded of what the best poetry does for me–it gives my grief another throat.

while fibers of my longing quiver like worms in a wound.
Almah LaVon Rice: What do you think about grief, if at all, in relationship to this work?

J F K Randhawa: Beautiful question. I think this work is infused with years of grieving and grief — and grief that preceded me, grief that I inherited. Certain poems are more thematically interested in tangling with grief. Others are perhaps not directly involved in that tangling but nevertheless are caught and bound in the living world — I grieve the living world every day. Even when not in a space of grieving, still the drum beat of loss. The drums of loss: I just conceal them and echo them and that loss is ecological.

A lot of this work was written in New York, when I was living there for a time. There was a loss I was writing and sinking into — a confluence of losses and transitions. So the performative act of sounding out — which is a way I think about poetry and about this writing — that is the voice of grief. And the drumbeat of grieving, I think it moves through this language. At the time I was living in New York, I was thinking a lot about policed spaces, policed bodies, human and non human. I was also thinking about the loss of certain friendships when I came out as queer and came into my sensuality and sexuality a little bit more in a particular friend group that I think had certain other gendered expectations of my body. The loss of friendship when you experience opening your world to vaster ideas of relations.

In that time, I just remember this one specific day right after Trump was elected in the city. And I don’t even know what militarized force it was. But all of a sudden central downtown — there’s just like four blocks that were cordoned off by a bunch of people with military grade automatic rifles and the cop cars were suddenly tanks. And there’s this intense sense, it’s like a pit of despair. That was the time when I really started to learn more about the voice of grief and to tap into it more.

The lines are edges, trust.
The lines, leap off them.
When I started reading the poems in Time Regime, I turned away, fearing that my brain was too sidewalked for its dense thicket-poetics. What if I don’t get this? Grief-steeped, I returned to the poems. I came to realize that “getting it” was an impossible errand; I would have more luck if I allowed myself to be taken, initiated. It was true that my brain, unchaperoned, was not enough to go “inside the nodding sleep of a god.” (from “Mechanics,” p. 18) I was reminded of Eduardo Galeano’s invocation of “sentipensante” in The Book of Embraces, a coinage from Colombian fishermen that translates as “feeling-thinking” in English. I would need all of my bodies, all of my feral feeling, to breach the woods of this work.

Are we awash in ash, are you still close? Are we near the zone?
Imagine, or worse, remember. A flash of world-ending white. Imagine it’s just after, after the Great Detonation. It’s nuclear, whether you are in Tulsa, Wounded Knee, Bhopal, My Lai, or Hiroshima (point to any spot on the map — you are here). You are a survivor, perhaps, and that means you are a gleaner and shrapnel is your harvest. All you can do is gather the poetry that remains. Remains like:

drought-and-displacement-dry, lurid with hotel horses (p. 64)

     While the idea of town sinks deep in our bladders (p. 9)

                                                      The water towers
bruise what’s left of sky–   (p. 24)

            Alone with an antique affair of solid rain. (p. 89)

bulldozer with paradise face. (p.61)

              the surface of the earth was raked, curdled by
orchard (p. 87)

The landscape is mausoleum. What do you do with this? (p. 87)

I must confess that I tend to avoid ecopoetics. I blame my breakable heart, the memory of a lover who said, I can’t take how depressed you get about these things. (After I had laid in bed for three days mourning a slaughtered sequoia.) But somehow Time Regime allows me to look the apocalypse in the eye, its one pitiless eye. As we joke and memeify the prospect of WWIII, the future glows. Is that hope or atomic radiance? Either way, Randhawa holds my hand as we traverse what’s left of this unbearable landscape. The act of naming the workaday horrors is amulet, almost alchemy: “the land the narrative as dead as email.”  (p. 87) Or, “There were poems concerning wars waged in the cloud cover.” (p. 81) Or, “Lover, I am listening, hoping that in your gulfs I will swarm, a blossomed algae.” (p. 31) Do we queer what we cannot save?

Still, consolations infest the text: “There are ancestors strewn about, to seek in the wreck.” (p. 88) Very well then. Let us sift through the ash for the bone shards of our ancestors, teeth.

there are fingers
floating stitches across a vast shawl of                                          tenderness.
ALR: A few days ago I had a dream. My gauzy sense of the dream is that I met a figure like bell hooks, who said something about the ecological grief that I carry. Something like, there’s beauty still. It’s hard to put into words because it wasn’t like “be happy, don’t worry!” It was something very subterranean, much deeper than words. The best translation I have is, being present for the beauty is part of the ecological tending and witness that needs to happen. And so it’s interesting to get that message in a dream, and then read your book, I mean, really read your book.

J F K R: The way I’ve described this work in the past is as a dream. Some parts of it are dream logs. Our dreams are spaces of visitation, of thresholds. The bell hooks figure in your Dream,  Almah, feels like a guide, offering an antidote and a mantra to dispel with illusions secreted by  a grief left unwitnessed — for me, for so many, bell hooks’s work has been so oriented to  envisioning, seeking and more futuristically practicing with the material of the present  unobstructed relation; I feel she does this by metabolizing histories and traditions of love and  harm and witness and methodologies of listening, learning, communicating. Dreams bear a  likeness to bell hooks’ work — dreams are a practice space, they are a metabolizing space, a  space where the subterranean, this beautiful word you used, breathes into us, giving us the  secrets of the present, and the present across time. If we, humans, particularly people in more  technocratic or “post-industrial” urban/sub-urban environments, forget, or feel obstructed from  the ecological shape of our lives, we shut out a vital tenderness, an integral spirit of  communion (with our own bodies, our kin and communities, the materials that envelop,  nourish, deplete us).

how certain are you that this is speculative?
That dreams are not already gathered about you watching?
As a whole, Time Regime reflects on the experiences of multiple beings whose lives, ecological contexts, and dreams interpermeate, collide, or float in parallel vectors. These “beings” could be the bodies of rice germ, red ticks, a grandmother’s skin cells, limestone deposits, machine intelligence, shaggy language, the poet, the mythological winged cow Surabhi whose chariot is invoked across Sikhi, Islam, and Hinduism, as well as divining elements such as fire, water, and wind.

ALR: Why Time Regime?

J F K R: For me, time is fluid, interpermeating, positional, interdependent, layered over itself; time erodes, it erodes itself, bends, spirals, erupts. Time has afterlives and carries future ancestors in its currents. It is uncertain. It is neither linear, nor does it progress only forward and backward. In stillness, too, I am learning and unlearning time. When I observe time, filtered through experiences of global powers, hegemonies, and capitalist/colonial regimes and ideologies, I wonder about all the edifices built around time, that seek to police, regiment, structure, and bureaucratize it.

ALR: So a quote from Time Regime that I found impish and intriguing: “Sometimes I am deliberately working to remain unreachable.” And I wanted to know if you wanted to say more about how you see the relationship between legibility and the end of the world? Or not, because that might be revealing your hand? (laughter)

J F K R: (more laughter) You are seeing through to the hand. Which is marvelous, really marvelous. Legibility and the end of the world…I think about the article “the” in this idea about the world.

ALR: Oh, yes! Oof, I’m getting chills.

J F K R: There’s so much to unpack right there alone. Who constructed the world? Which world are we talking about? Whose world, and how?

ALR: (snaps enthusiastically)

J F K R: So thinking about the end of the world — we think that for humans. I think so many of us are caught up in a really anthropocentric and self-forward way of inhabiting the world where instead of belonging to sadness, belonging to time, or death…Death belongs to our bodies…there’s just so much that we cannot see or perceive. The life world of a worm on our sidewalk in the morning after a monsoon is so entangled in our existence and so far from what we experience and what we know on a daily level.

Legibility is such a potent and powerful dictation of experience. I think that legibility is full of signifiers of the known world — and there’s the article “the” again, and there’s the word “world” again. The constraints of what we have constructed to know and be known, and how, are limited and there are millions if not billions of other universes possible, even in this one moment on this planet, beyond our bodies. I’m gonna make myself cry because I’m envisioning this beautiful, incredible eel that lived in the coral reef outside of Tokyo in the 80s. And I saw this video of this eel in Tokyo in the 80s, and I think about the ancestries of that eel. For thousands, millions of years and how it has changed and how I will likely never know it, the bonds of those creatures to the sea, to the coral, to the salt — like the salinity in the water, all of these elements made by just looking at this eel on this video are illegible to me. I think about the amount of radiation and mercury that just continues to amass in the seas in the Pacific. I think about what worlds have already ended. Whose worlds. And how.

…I am a sexual dissident but with a private language.
ALR: In Time Regime, you wrote about “North Indian magical hair practices and the colonial policing of gender fluidities.” (In response to P. Hershman’s essay, “Hair, Sex, and Dirt.”) And I was like, what’s the relationship between my femme beard living as I am in the afterlife of slavery and your gender-iridescent mustache? I was interested in this cross-cultural conversation. I guess you’re also speaking of Orientalism, too.

J F K R: Yeah.

ALR: I just wanted to say that it resonated with me. I’m touching my femme beard now.

J F K R: I’m stroking my little mustache right now.

(We laugh together hirsutely.)

J F K R: I’m excited to speak into this a little bit more because there’s so much about the obvious policing of gender fluidities that also rubs up against the construction of a tame body and maintained body, a body under regime–the bodies that are “women” and the bodies that are “men,” the bodies that are human or not human.

My background is Sikh and Punjabi, but my ancestral land is also Kenya where my father was born. There’s such an interesting relationship in the Indian Ocean circuit…

My relationship to hair as a kind of ancestral practice is and has belonged to the maintenance of a male-gendered body, or masculine body, I suppose. Just sitting with this impression is that how little I know and have gleaned from even conversations with my Sikh community and my elders around the complications of these hair practices. Besides just gender alone…and gender as an construction was happening in direct relationship to the bodies of white women in colonial India in the 1700s at the time and so there’s all these tangles. They’re so opaque to me that I’m not sure how to answer this question except in personal anecdotes and that also feels really particular — like this kind of diasporic question that I have, especially about Sikh American identity and Kenyan Sikh Punjabi American identity at the same time. It feels really bound up in “men’s hair” and my inhabiting that space, just scratching at it, is maybe a kind of queer thing.

ALR: Your poems remind me of these words from Wallace Stevens:

“The poem must resist the intelligence
Almost successfully.”

Feel free to disagree, converge, diverge — I just wanted to offer that these lines came to mind while reading your work.

__________________________________________________________________________

After some arguments with and “a long metabolizing of this phrase,” here’s the final landing place:

J F K R: A poem must recognize and inhabit itself, and have the capacity for an otherwise.

__________________________________________________________________________

loneliness is resource
Is loneliness the most renewable resource that we have? And yet…

Together sometimes we harness the force of what hovers above a raw crater.
ALR:  One thing that came to mind is you as a visual artist and working in other modes–and I was thinking if you had a non-textual companion work to Time Regime that included illustrations, performance art, gestures, what might it look like?

J F K R:  I love this question! Are you familiar with Phulkari? It’s a particular textile practice from the Punjab — but from western Punjab, from Kashmir. It’s an ancestral practice of textile and weaving. They’re usually pretty big. Often these textiles are hand woven and hand embroidered, using silk and cotton threads. They’re usually like the size of a full or queen bedspread. It’s a practice that’s often taken up by…traditionally women in the Punjab. When a daughter is born, they’ll start weaving these textiles and tapestries to pass to that person when they’ve gone through a rite — whether that’s their moon approaches them or they get married or whatever may be. This shroud is also used in death. So people are often wrapped in the Phulkari that their grandmothers started weaving for them when the person who birthed them was pregnant.

I think the Phulkari is really a ghost presence in this collection. Lots of stitching and threading and—

ALR: —“guts embroidered,” I remember that from Time Regime.

J F K R: Yes, this thread is attached to a mother line. It’s umbilical. It is these guts, our gut flora pouring all over each other in a way. In terms of a visual accompaniment, I almost would want Phulkari, but I would want them to be translucent. And I would want them to be installed in a space where people could circumambulate, and their bodies — as they would pass through kind of different passages lined and crisscrossed with these many translucent, heavily embroidered hanging tapestries–that everyone’s bodies would become auras to each other.

I’m thinking that in the space, too — you were talking about grief work happening through this text — and I would want in a visual capacity for there to be space in place for people to touch and if not to touch then to sit in presence with each other. I also would want a sensation of really sharing in space with each other.

So I’m thinking about these translucent Phulkari that are hanging from the ceiling that people circumambulate and are lit with maybe a purple light. And I would love there to be a room or perhaps even close hallway where there are also cushions lined up facing each other on both sides of the hall. And I would really love to have myself if not a few other friends present to start a process or just be in sitting practice in that space. Kind of at the end of the Phulkari space that you can pass through but also sit with. So I think I’ll stop there, in that imaginal space.

NOTE: The bolded headings are excerpts from poems in Time Regime


Time Regime is available April 1 and can be ordered on Bookshop.


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Almah LaVon Rice

Almah LaVon Rice is a creature of myth rumored to live in Pittsburgh, PA. She writes short fiction and creative nonfiction in the key of the AfroSurreal. Explore more of her work at @agentsubrosa on IG or AlmahLaVonRice.com

Almah has written 1 article for us.

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