Wednesday, March 31, 2021
Serial Interview with Renée Sarojini Saklikar : THOT-J-BAP (The Heart of This Journey Bears All Patterns)
Renée Sarojini Saklikar writes the life-long poem chronicle, thecanada?project and in it are many things, including books, chapbooks, poems published in journals and anthologies, and artistic and musical collaborations. Her books include the ground-breaking, children of air india, un/authorized exhibits and interjections (Nightwood Editions, 2013) about the bombing of Air India Flight 182; and Listening to the Bees (Nightwood Editions, 2018), (with Dr Mark Winston), as well as the anthology, The Revolving City: 51 Poems and The Stories Behind Them (Anvil Press/ SFU, 2016) (with Wayde Compton). Her work has been adapted into opera (air india [redacted]) and into music (Bee Studies) both with Turning Point Ensemble. She is the curator of Lunch Poems at SFU and Vancouver’s first free Poetry Phone, 1-833-POEMS-4-U (@downtownvanbia).
THOT J BAP is an epic fantasy written in poetry, selections of which have appeared over the years in chapbooks published by Nous-Zot, above/ground, and Nomados presses. The first book in the series, Bramah and the Beggar Boy, is forthcoming later this spring with Nightwood Editions and is available direct from Harbour Publishing: https:// harbourpublishing.com/products/9780889714021
This serial interview will take place over several months, with postings that occur in instalments.
CT: Before we formally jump into THOT-J-BAP (The Heart of This Journey Bears All Patterns), tell me a bit more about your blog, thecanada?project , which is described as a life-long chronicle and combines essays, interviews, and events/activities related to your own writing practices and that of others in the literary and arts communities. One could say that these forms are all part of one another,
including the epic form of THOT-J-BAP….
RSJ: Regarding thecanada?project…over the last two years I wrote an essay fragment about something momentous in the process of this life-long poem chronicle, of which all my creative work including THOT J BAP is a part...I’ve replicated the text here:
thecanadaproject is a life-long poem chronicle about place, identity, language. In it are many things, including published material and works in progress such as a prose poem novel, a series of essays about life from India to Canada, coast to coast as well as many sequences of poems, inpart, about the places I’ve lived: Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Northern Ontario, Northern Quebec, Montreal, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia. The project will end when I end. It is a series of fragments always asking, when does the poem begin?
thecanadaproject interviews series
To interview another is to engage in process: discovery, interrogation. The question as astrolabe can also be weapon. How to leave space for the subject – that’s what I think about when approaching writers and artists…this section is also about gratitude, for those who do the work. Always there is the challenge: how to stay open—what did Martha Graham exhort?— keep the channel open. Is poetry a project? Dorothea Lasky, whose work I love, thinks not. And yet…
“This is a site of fragments. This is part of a long poem. This is not enough time. This is time, and its dimensions.”
Rethinking Canada this new decade
One of my preoccupations as a creative worker: what does it mean to be Canadian? What layers of being make identity complex: citizen-settler-immigrant—Canada was/is a promised land, a paradise, but it is jagged.
For some time now, as I read and listen to Indigenous writers such as Jordan Abel, Joanne Arnott, Billy Ray Belcourt (A Country is How Men Hunt), Therese Mailhout (Heartberries) and many more; as I observe the pain and discomfort this word and concept, “Canada” carries for many—as I read and reread documents about Indian Residential Schools, I’m becoming more and more uneasy with my own implication in structures, and systems.
And this comes to me: Language is a structural system. So, this new decade: thecanadaproject, my lifelong poem chronicle, will now be thecanada?project.
CT: THOT-J-BAP is considered a long poem, but it's also described as an epic, as well as a multi-part series emerging in instalments. [Bramah and the Beggar Boy to be published by Nightwood Editions and distributed/marketed by Harbour Publishing in April 2021].
What attracts you to the epic, the chronology, the instalment, the life-long, and the blog --all of which have resonance with a notion of a 'public' -- in terms of Thot-J-Bap, and in terms of your own engagement with forms of cultural expression and how these forms are enacted?
RJS: So, about THOT J BAP. Yep. It’s an epic. Epic in that it is long; so long, that it will emerge in a series of books...and epic in scope, in that it encompasses lots of different elements. And it is epic in that it is written within that tradition and playful, too, with the tradition of sagas, story cycles, and mythic texts.
And about thecanada?project (my blog/website)….Indeed, that is my life-long poem chronicle. It will end, alas when I do. Although, hopefully, there will be readers and friends who will, by the act of reading the work, keep it alive.
An example of the playfulness [of the epic form], edging around perhaps more complex imaginings, is the title, The Heart Of This Journey Bears All Patterns. Since the start of the poems appearing in journals and chapbooks, that title is represented as THOT J BAP. I love the mouth feel of that! THOT J BAP. To my ear, the sounds are somehow a kind of “Eastern/Asian” influence, with a nod, to my mother’s mother tongue, Gujarati.
THOT J BAP started out in 2008 as a long poem but not an epic. The poem was written in the aftermath of my father’s untimely death in 2002. I’d wake, mornings, and after intense morning anxiety, which I still suffer from, I’d sit at a table with a cup of tea and read T.S. Eliot’s "Four Quartets". The poem began in response to verses and lines in the "Four Quartets". Early on in the writing process, I realized, with a shock, oh, this is going to be way longer. I recall the moment. I was working on a draft of the manuscript of what would become my first book, children of air india, un/authorized exhibits and interjections (Nightwood Editions, 2013). It was August, and I was at my friend Jackie’s place. We were taking a break from a summer work session, she with teacher prep, me with my long poems, and I remember just standing stock still, looking out at a pond in the park we were in, and saying, “oh I can’t do them both at the same time! I’m going to have to choose...and I thought, well, I’ll get through this first book, and then, I’ll get into THOT J BAP. Little did I know how long and intense and all consuming that first book experience would be...and through it, from publication to the intensity of its reception, I kept working away at this epic, much more slowly that I’d intended, and so the months, became years, and the poem lead me deeper and deeper into, well, a kind of altered state, of another time and place...and then,wham, the pandemic happened, and I went deeper even still…
[Re: “what attracts you to the epic, the chronology, the instalment, the life-long”…] If I knew the answer I’m not sure I’d still be obsessed with these things! Since I started developing a consciousness of myself as a writer, which happened somewhat later in my life... For example, as a child and young adult I was always scribbling...always trying to understand the world and my place or lack of place, in it, through writing. But only much later, probably when I joined SFU’s The Writer’s Studio, did I permit myself to put the cloak of “writer” around my shoulders. And once that happened, I, too, noticed, this compulsion: to chronicle; to envision the poem both as fragment, incomplete and also, as part of a historical/social context; also just sound, waves of sound; or one image, reoccurring.
Always, the first thing is sound. Then image...I don’t really think too much about meaning. And perhaps the long poem, the epic, the chronicle, is a way to hold fragments of sound and image inside a kind of a vessel? That’s where poetry, all aspects of poetry and dance and movement also come in...and somehow the epic holds a key to how to be in the moment, still and sweet and slow and also right inside the now, the urgency of now, all the things buffeting at once... And the poem, or the act of making poems, sound to sound, with image, in fragments, and then held and documented in the epic, the long form, is about this tension between lack and abundance, belonging, not belonging, which is how I experience, this, my mother – tongue, English.
[You can hear Renée read from a section of THOT-J-BAP on Soundcloud. children of air india, un/authorized exhibits and interjections with music by John Oliver and poetry by Renée Saklikar can also be heard on Soundcloud. Her chapbooks can be ordered from above/ground and Nomados Press.]
Thursday, March 18, 2021
or, where a poem begins
A poem is always a phenomenological event preceded by a period of relative inaction. In the past, I would attempt to induce poetry through methodological means—reading a book by a writer I admired before attempting a mimicry of my own poetry or imbibing altering substances so as to “trick” myself into the process; such methods always produced lacklustre results. I’ve come to accept that poetry follows behind states of patience: patience with myself and with language, through periods of silence and profusion alike. The time spent in lieu of writing is necessary to any poetry that is to come and cannot be avoided or otherwise deceived.
When I truly begin a poem, authentically begin a poem, another poem follows soon after. Poetry “appears.” Poetry appears, as though from a wellspring, through engagement with whatever psychic continuities were previously backgrounding this time of relative stasis, finally providing a release or means through which my internal experience can again become an “outside.” That this process often takes the form of poetry is, I suspect, an arbitrary distinction. These days, it just as easily takes the form of a painting, theatrical or dramatic writing, or hybrid prose. Form arises organically, without much premeditation.
While poetry initially arises in such an inexplicable way, I am, these days, moving towards a vastly different approach to composition. Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, all process has been altered. Between artistic practice and the structures of my daily life, everything has become subject to difficult interrogation and sometimes breakage. Poetry has likewise been subjected to this ungrounding. The pandemic has completely changed the ways in which I relate to composition, poetry— art practice and to perception in general. The work of other writers has, during this time, become a lifeline, a way of thinking through my inner experience while maintaining a connection to that outside we’ve all been distanced from. This past year, I’ve occupying myself with comprehensive readings of the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and Édouard Glissant alongside Josef Albers, Arthur Schopenhauer and Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s writings on colour. I’ve been reading artist biographies and closely looking at visual reproductions of their work (Etel Adnan, Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Ernst Kirchner, amongst others). I’ve been watching films featuring tragic heroines, films where form disassembles appearance, films which are paintings and poems (I repeatedly think to Pier Paolo Pasolini as filmmaker, poet and painter of light). So yes, I am often prompted by other writers, artists. In engaging with other’s thought I am able to apply some comprehensible system to my own process, or at the very least access some means of thinking through this extended period of difficulty.
My compositional process begins as a haphazard overflow, a somatic process of excision. My poems are never singular, standalone pieces but interconnected in a vast network of narratives and formal systems. This initial point of composition once began in physical notebooks— these days I turn directly to the keyboard. Notebooks are still important starting points to my thought—I have several in active use. A notebook for my notes on readings or films, a sketchbook, a bullet journal, one for painting techniques (I am currently engaging in a material art practice; one whose techniques have been melding into my writing in unanticipated ways) and another notebook for lineated poetry (at the moment, disused).
The second step to this process is, and I use this word conscious of its implications, a self-cannibalization of all that has been written prior to this point. While the writing which preceded this state was relatively free, unbound, this second state is a pained taking apart of all that had been written to this point, a reformulating and restructuring which is always experienced as incisive forfeiture. I was recently talking with Cynthia Mitchell, an incredible visual artist, filmmaker and dear friend, about the process of painting being a continual loss of a painting’s former image. Such composition is always an irretrievable replacement with another image, this image then being replaced in order to progress the work to its final point. This final point is itself only a sensed decision to cease engagement with what is essentially a practice of continual loss. I see an affinity here with the practice of writing—though each loss is not so permanent as it is in a painting (inasmuch one is usually able to revert to a previous point in the writing if so desired), bringing a written work to a point where it will be comprehensible to others is always a kind of loss of that initial mystery, even if it finally results in something more beautiful and complete to behold.
The idea of this process of continual loss now informs my process, one which ebbs and renews as paintings do, in self-erasure and revision before beginning again with another image, another poem, another book, another—
Nicole Raziya Fong is a writer living in Montréal, Canada. She is the author of PEЯFACT (Talonbooks, 2019) and OЯACULE (forthcoming with Talonbooks, 2021). Past work has appeared in publications including Social Text, The Capilano Review, carte blanche, Cordite, filling Station and The Volta as well as in translation in Exit, OEI & Revue Watts.
Thursday, March 11, 2021
How does a poem get started for you, and is that something that has changed over time?
When I first started writing poetry, I wrote lines to capture images in my mind. I cannot say for certain, but I think those images have always been there, and I do not know why they are haunting me. After a while, I wrote lines that were pleasing to my ears to draw out those images.
And then, I started to translate Korean poetry into English. I came to America when I was twelve years old. I spoke Korean at home and learned English in school. However, I still do not know what language I dream in, and when I wake up from my dreams, I am left with afterglow of visions that transpired in my sleep. Translating poetry taught me how to translate those images into my languages.
I do not think my two languages take turns inside my head. They are always at play or at odds with each other. I also find it difficult to tell the difference between when I am translating and when I am writing my own poetry.
Do you begin with a loose structure, a phrase or a word, or the kernel of an idea?
I have learned that when I am translating those images from my head into my languages, the best way is to start with an assortment of sounds that are unlikely to happen naturally in everyday speech. For me, this usually means snatching an aggressive rhythmic effect whenever I hear it. This might turn into some random hums, or I might try to fit it into some well-known syllabic meter in Korean or accentual-syllabic meter in English. I keep at it until something get caught in the net of those sounds, and what I catch is one of those images that have been floating inside of me. I believe it is a fragment of the whole thing itself that is still buried deep somewhere in the soul.
Are you prompted by the work of other poets, or, say, something you read in a newspaper?
I am not sure, and I do not mean that I somehow standalone. I only mean that at least when I am in the moment of writing these days, I start with humming. Some internal music is the prompt, and the words or phrases that give shape of language, or the form of sense, to this music have roots in things that I have read or heard or seen.
Do you start at the beginning, somewhere in the middle, or work from a scattering of notebook entries?
I start working on what I think will be my first line, and then I write until I forget what I thought was my first line. I am terrible at making titles for my poems, even though that is often the true first line of the poem.
Do you utilize notebooks, and how does that help?
I keep a small notebook around to write down anything that pops in my head. But, for some reason, I never go back and use what I wrote down and start working from there. When I start a new poem, I always start with blank page. I think the act of writing something down may be more important than what I wrote down when it comes to keeping a notebook.
How are line-breaks (or the choice to ignore them) chosen? Etcetera.
I tell myself there needs to be a good reason for
a sentence to not end when the line ends on a page. Having said that, I have
translated many prose poems, such as the poems of Yi Sang (1910-1937), I have
always felt that each of his prose poems are in fact an exceptionally long
single line. When I read them, I can see he had no reason to end them with any
breaks. He also does not use the breaks between words that is one of the rules
in Korean grammar. He hardly uses any punctuations. There is an unrelenting
force pouring out from his sequence of syllables. That force gives shape to his
images. His images are dark as shards of obsidian cooled in the aftermath
volcanic eruption. And the shards are sharp enough to pierce through the false
reality that was imposed on him and his people in the wake of colonialism and
Maybe even focusing on recent threads in your work, or even a recent (and/or recently published) poem?
My poem Code, which was published by Afternoon Visitor on their first issue, is one of the first poems I was ever proud of. I no longer write poems like it, but I learned a lot about caesura, which is a type of line break, when I was working on that poem’s last stanza. I learned that repeating a word after many pauses could create a whole new sensation for the repeated word:
Inside the teacher’s office
is a slab of stone, roughly chiseled
with shapes we have no key for.
It is wide enough for me to lie down
and stretch until my extremities
touch the jagged edge.
He demands I see a dolphin
where he sees one. As his favorite, I must
find the white that swims in black.
The teacher asks I think on the dolphin,
how it floats in the ocean
filled with other life.
I fail. I tell him I have found it.
He believes me. I fail again.
I lie on the stone and swim.
Jack Jung is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was a Truman Capote Fellow. He was born in Seoul, South Korea, and immigrated to the United States. He received his BA in English from Harvard, and an MA in Korean Language and Literature from Seoul National University. His translations of Korean poet Yi Sang’s poetry and prose are published in Yi Sang: Selected Works by Wave Books. He is the American Literary Translation Association’s 2021 Emerging Translator Mentorship Program Mentor for Korean poetry. He currently teaches Korean poetry translation at Literature Translation Institute of Korea.