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
The website for THOT J BAP is https://thotjbap.com/
©Renee Saklikar 2021
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.]
CT: As the person writing THOT J BAP, how are you finding the process of keeping track of the multiple narratives and their fragments?
RSS: Keeping track of the THOT J BAP creative process demands mindfulness and a kind of rigour that also sometimes anxiety: over ten years, I’ve accumulated documents and files and paraphernalia and printed articles and notes. These are in boxes, files, charts, notebooks: the THOT J BAP archive has taken over a lot of our small apartment. And because I’ve been working on it for so long, I’ve carted these boxes and files around with me. I’ve had to teach myself how to keep track and have learned the hard way, the folly of not doing so: when I’m on the trail of a story, the “scent” of a poem it can be cumbersome to have to go searching…
CT: And, in terms of working with the sonic, do you find sonic elements, expressions, changing between chapbooks/books, or within the books themselves?
RSS: The question of sonics really interests me. So much of my creative process and the way that poems arise for me is about sound, and I am but a kind of scribe taking dictation for the sounds that are tapping out their message and rhythms, waiting for me to stop whatever else I’m doing, and just be still enough to try and capture what I’m hearing. So, there is this sensation of a continuing sonic boom, echo, chant, thread, pulling me along. I’ve had to learn to listen carefully and slowly. That’s part of what’s taken me so long. Sometimes I’ve not quite known what I am hearing, and I’ve had to walk and reflect and hold the sounds within me.
CT: When you return to drafts, as you compose, how is your 'ear' responding to your work (especially if you haven't looked at a chapbook or draft for awhile)?
RSS: My body seems to demand, first, a set of rituals. These have varied over the years and include the following:
-A lot of brewing of tea: rooibos in a mug.
-The rubbing and holding of stones/rocks picked up on my walks.
-Listening to all kinds of songs, on a loop on my devices and just letting them play.
-Then, reading my notes.
-Or, often, dusting the THOT J BAP archive.
I kid you not: I spend a lot of time dusting, re-arranging, searching for documents, notebooks, looking up things on the internet, re-reading books that are my companions for the journey. Sometimes, after all that, composition is simply sitting in silence and one word, one word! Emerges. So, I’ve been reckoning with time and its dimensions. Humbling, to say the least.
CT: We’ve talked a bit about THOT J BAP transitioning from, structurally, a long poem to an epic, and incorporating components of epics that may be familiar: chronology, tellings of critical figures and events, forms of continuity -- sounds, repetitions within language and the line. Eliot’s Four Quartets sparked a ‘start’ into form, but are there particular epic works that offer direction, resistance, patterns as THOT J BAP evolves?
RSS: In addition to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, there is also Eliot’s The Wasteland. As I’ve maybe mentioned, THOT J BAP started out in 2008 as a series of written responses, which were themselves acts of self-care, to help me deal with grief and anxiety. I used prompt-based writing as I read and re-read both The Four Quartets and The Wasteland, as a means to both deal with morning anxiety and also to explore the long poem form.
And although I didn’t understand it at the time I was writing, I see now that I was also resisting Eliot . I love his poems/find him distasteful. Nothing about his life, his mores, his politics is about me at all. Still love his poems, though. So that’s interesting!
I then put much of my THOT J BAP work aside as I went deeper into the work needed to complete my first book, children of air india, un/authorized exhibits and interjections. About ten years ago, I began re-visiting my notebooks and re-connected with the work. Looking over my response here, I’m struck by that prefix, “re”: to return, to go back. Revisit, re-connect, return. That’s an impulse throughout THOT J BAP and I’m only now beginning to see the connection of the prefix to the idea of time, forward and back.
|Photo credit: ©Renee Saklikar 2021|
|Photo credit: ©Renee Saklikar 2021|
That absence, that not seeing oneself in The Line Up, that’s a fierce resistance in me. All those voices. Maybe there are now poets who don’t hear the dry papery whispers: What, you? You, writing a long poem? How dare you!
From such readings, and re-readings, and texts, and enquiries, comes direction -- there’s lots to learn from The Greats, and then, that impulse, to resist. And for me, as found in THOT J BAP, resistance takes the form of imaginative dissonance, the creation of worlds.
CT: Are there works that you think also pare back the essences of an epic form, that fragment it?
CT: I would have liked to have been there! There is a sense of ritual in the various chapbooks, a building sense of pattern and repetition, bolstered by various figures moving geospatially ‘in time’ (present) and in a ‘space-time’ (both place and future), and by certain structural forms, like the sonnet or repeated images and line fragments. What are the realities of memory and searching/exploration in THOT J BAP? How important is account and recounting from figures who often leave parts of their stories hanging — ?
RSS: I think the best way I can approach an engagement with these fascinating questions is to reference Roberto Bolaño. I haven’t actively thought of his work in a few years but certainly at earlier stages of the writing of THOT J BAP, I devoured his disturbing magnum opus, 2666. My husband read the book over the duration of his Christmas break several years ago. I was so intrigued by the boxed set of this over 900-page novel, with its five “parts” (printed as books), that I started to read it and then sort of fell into it, feverish and frightened and compelled. Later, we purchased a book of interviews Bolaño gave before he died of liver failure in 2003. From these readings, I started to experience memory and the idea of the quest, as part of the fundamental structure of the poem. These ideas then led me to fantasy!
CT: THOT J BAP describes torture, imprisonment, displacement and migration, detention and surveillance, raw personal and societal loss and persecution, as well as resistance and revolution. Names, titles, and references cross ethnicities and cultures and are intensely relevant: Before-Time, Rentalsman, Revival-Network, Outsider, Abigail, Bartholomew, Investigator, The Tale of the Rani of Jhansi, etc. Individuals are within multi-dimensional, pan geographic realities — what is resistance in The Heart of This Journey Bears All Patterns?
RSS: I think it was Peter Quartermain who once said (it could have been at that November reading we did, Chris, at People’s Coop), that he saw THOT J BAP as a map history of the world. It is both unsettling and reassuring to read your list of all these societal, political, geo-political, historical, geographical and demographical processes and traumas and inequities that indeed are layered into the dystopian wonder that is the world of THOT J BAP. I suppose all my poetry and my poetics is predicated on my experience of our historical, cultural, economic, and ecological moment. How can it be otherwise? If THOT J BAP comes to be read into the body of work that is, for instance, “CanLit,” then perhaps it will be read as poetry that contains and arises from history.
RSS: I love this question. Here are a few thoughts culled from those end notes to Book One, Bramah and The Beggar Boy:
CT: What happens to languages across portals or through time, and then to the storytellers across those domains?
RSS: THOT J BAP employs different forms of language and different kinds of texts, as we see in book one of the series, Bramah and The Beggar Boy: In this way, language proves to be the ultimate shapeshifter!
On one level, we find verse forms often used in epic poetry. Fused with those forms are many other kinds of text and levels of language, with puns and rhyme. Early on into the writing process, I realized that the story demanded attention to a fine level of detail, and I gave myself the time needed to seed each page, with poetry that coheres with layers of things: characters, time, location. Now that the first book exists in print, when I look at the sequences of published poems, I see that language is itself a character. It changes depending on each of these domains:
All these elements seemed to choose me as an instrument: that I would be the poet to arrange the pattern.
CT: Maps. Is “map” the right word for how one might try to describe the movements — of people, of terrain and plants, of time and of language (and oh, there are other things to list here!)? Is a map a kind of constraint of record, archive, reference? A swinging door...?
RSS: Yes, to maps! And yes, I think that the epic in particular lends itself to language and map-making, whether literally or imaginatively. Both frames of reference are found in THOT J BAP.
As I’ve mentioned, I gave myself the gift of time in creating this epic fantasy in verse. And part of that gift inspired me to share something that was finely wrought, meticulously crafted, for the joy and edification of the reader. THOT J BAP is baroque, it’s the opposite of minimalist.
|"Language". Photo credit: ©Renee Saklikar 2021|
|"Inside Perimeter". Photo credit: ©Renee Saklikar 2021|
|"Summer Portal". Photo credit: ©Renee Saklikar 2021|
|"Outside Perimeter". Photo credit: ©Renee Saklikar 2021|
**A note from Renee to Readers of This Interview:
So, I’m putting it right out here: Please don’t take our words, either from our creative works, and/or our words about our work without our permission.
I’m going to write an essay on this kind of taking, using Ursula K LeGuin’s essay "The Disappearing Grandmothers", as part of my research. Caveat Emptor!