Thursday, September 22, 2016

TtD supplement #62 : seven questions for Renée Sarojini Saklikar

Renée Sarojini Saklikar writes thecanadaproject, a life-long poem chronicle that includes poetry, fiction, and essays. Work from the project is widely published in journals, anthologies and chapbooks. The first completed book from thecanadaproject is children of air india, un/authorized exhibits and interjections, (Nightwood Editions, 2013) winner of the 2014 Canadian Authors Association Award for poetry and a finalist for the 2014 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Award. Trained as a lawyer at the University of British Columbia, with a degree in English Literature, Renée was called to the British Columbia Bar in 1991. A graduate of The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University, Renée is currently a mentor and instructor for the university and co-founder of a new poetry reading series, Lunch Poems at SFU. In September 2015, with acclaimed author Wayde Compton, Renée co-edited The Revolving City: 51 Poems and the Stories Behind Them (Anvil Press/SFU Public Square). Renée serves as an advocate on the national council of The Writer’s Union of Canada and is at work on the second volume of thecanadaproject, excerpts of which can be found in the journals Eleven Eleven, The Capilano Review and online at DUSIE and The Rusty Toque. Renée is working on a sequence of bee poems based on her collaboration with well-known biologist, Dr. Mark Winston, some of which recently appeared as a chapbook with above/ground press.

A suite of poems from volume 2 of thecanadaproject appears in the tenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the suite of poems that appear in Touch the Donkey. What is thecanadaproject, and how do you see the work-in-progress volume 2 extending or expanding upon the work of the first?

A: The suite of poems that appear in Touch the Donkey are excerpted from a sequence, “Bartholomew in the compound, the bees” and this suite of poems lies nestled in the second completed series from thecanadaproject, which is a book length poem, the heart of this journey bears all patterns, commonly known as Thot-J-Bap. The Touch the Donkey suite contains pieces of a collaborative work I’ve embarked on with the Governor General award winning scientist, Dr. Mark Winston: he’s given me access to his scientific work on the honey bee and he and I are working on a set of poems and prose readings that we’ve performed in Vancouver. (https://thecanadaproject.wordpress.com/2015/09/28/of-bees-and-wings-reblogging-mark-winstons-essay/)

Thot-J-Bap is populated by a vast connection of characters, a sampling of which you will see in the excerpt included. The journey of Thot-J-Bap, over the course of decades, indeed, even, eons, explores an imaginary territory, Pacifica, loosely based on British Columbia and the Pacific North West/ Cascadia, as well as the cities of Toronto, Paris, Baghdad and Ahmedabad, and that exploration includes an investigation of various shibboleths: East v West, Empire v other, description v representation, and language in translation, the syntax of the fragment.

Parts of Thot-J-Bap appear in issue 7 of The Rusty Toque (http://www.therustytoque.com/poetry-reneacutee-sarojini-saklikar.html) and in issue 17 of DUSIE, http://www.dusie.org/issueseventeen.html as well as in The Capilano Review (issue 3.26) and in Eleven Eleven (issue 19).

thecanadaproject https://thecanadaproject.wordpress.com/ 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, in part, 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? A way-finding text for my imagining a life-long poem chronicle came to me while at The Writer’s Studio, when a mentor referred me to an essay by Stephen Collis on his work, The Barricades Project. Yeah, after that I was hooked. And in that way that happens, then everything seemed to call out for long poem rendering, such as another important way-finding text, N.Wimmer’s translator’s note on R.Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives.

The first completed series of the project is children of air india, un/authorized exhibits and interjections (Nightwood Editions, 2013), about the bombing of Air India Flight 182 and recently adapted for theatre and music by Turning Point Ensemble, and a group of Irish collaborators with whom I’ve been working: air india [redacted] premiered in Vancouver Nov.6 with five shows running to Nov.11: http://www.vancouversun.com/entertainment/Music+Review+Contemporary+Unflinching+india+REDACTED/11502335/story.html
Tom Power on CBC Radio’s Q, (http://www.cbc.ca/radio/q/schedule-for-monday-november-9-2015-1.3310357/ren%C3%A9e-sarojini-saklikar-on-how-we-remember-and-forget-terror-1.3310374 )  interviewed me extensively about children of air india and I mention this because during that interview I was thinking about this very question you’ve asked: how, if in any way, does Thot-J-Bap “extend or expand” on children of air india: short answer, on one level, not at all, mercifully, because writing about the personal/public tragedy of Air India/Canada was/is lacerating; and yet, of course, on other levels, everything seems interconnected and layered, a series of transparencies and tracings, patterns which I only sense and never fully understand, nor perhaps, should I understand, but only to stay open, to be receiver, even as transgressor, juxtaposing and assembling and laying contiguous those things that the world holds must be kept separate and apart.

So the idea of layers emerges as touchstone, a continuing obsession, things that carry over, in the margins, banished from the main stage, discerned as slant. Un/authorized. Off the record. In the gutter of any page, those faint emanations of—for example, the persona character, N, who emerges as a kind of narrative guide in children of air india, and re-emerges, in different guises,  in Thot-J-Bap, where she finds—

Q: You mention one of the triggers of your life-long project being “an essay by Stephen Collis on his work, The Barricades Project” [see his Touch the Donkey interview here]. Was it really that straightforward, or were there other factors involved? What kinds of writing were you working on prior to this, if any, and did it end up being a part of the project?

A: Well, before I even had a consciousness of genre, I was working on memoir/counter-memoir; fiction; non-fiction; jottings, woven into whole cloth, fragmented.

In a series of next steps, some forward and some back, I keep writing about this thing, thecanadaproject which is comprised of: fragments that evoke or describe or investigate places I’ve lived in Canada (from Newfoundland to British Columbia and places in between); individual poems, often triggered by that obsessional trifecta: place/locale; time/dates/occurrences; loss/longing, which, as we’ve discussed, have culminated in the first completed series, children of air india; a work-in-progress, a prose-poem novel, The New Douglas Chronicles; another novel in progress, Winnipeg, 1919; a series of occasional poems, written while on public transit, particularly when riding the Skytrain.

The current series of poems, thot-j-bap (The Heart of this Journey bears all Patterns). To date, it is only very rarely, that a poem will arise that is “outside” the project. Although, I can’t think of even one right now. This is, in part, because I’ve not yet answered a life-long question, when does the poem begin? May I never discover the answer!

So, the idea of a living/lived chronicle didn’t come to me until about 2009, when I entered SFU’s The Writer’s Studio, with Wayde Compton, Rachel Rose and Betsy Warland. I don’t think initial generation of thecanadaproject would have happened without The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University, and without the writers there who helped me unlock a way of seeing, of conceptualizing the project, but not directly and I don’t think folks were necessarily either thrilled or interested in some of my ideas: like the idea of mixing into the project, a novel – or novels or ideas for novels: for example, since 2008, those two novels, Winnipeg 1919 and The New Douglas Chronicles – I take excerpts from both and place them inside the narrative arc and structure of different ongoing series of essays/memoirs/poems. Some of these embedded narratives are then extracted for publication.

What I see now, years later, is how much guiding and supporting Wayde Compton gave me, in his light-touch-way: one of the most important influences was an introduction to the work of Fred Wah, and in particular, Diamond Grill. Wayde encouraged me to mimic the style and sequential structure of those lyric/non-lyric bio-texts. The canadaproject, with its leanings and gleanings toward the prose poem, the lyric essay, towards collagist fiction, towards a bricolage approach, towards a life-long poem form, all got their start under Wayde Compton.

And also Betsy Warland, who turned to me, one evening in June, at a student reading, and said, “You may need to transgress, just do that, if you are ready, just transgress.” And that was another clarion call.  All these word-bits, throw-away references, small asides, sentence fragments, how they echo inside me and stay with me and I learn from them, and the learning takes time, months, even years.

Back in 2009, I still didn’t have an understanding of what it takes, day in, day out, to build a writing practice that can then move you toward the “thing itself” – whether novel, lyric essay, or collection of poems. Somehow, someway, after a year of languishing: that is, after a year of holding to myself an idea for a writing project but not knowing how to move it forward, I pulled myself together enough to start reading about long poems and about life-long poems. And then the thing took off. During that phase of the project in 2009, I realized that my vision for the thing was more complex, multi-faceted and profound than I had first imagined.  The project would take much longer than a year.  So, I tried to just be with that realization: that things would take a long time. In the meantime, I attended readings by other writers, I read essays about the craft of writing, I skirted The Academy for scholarly works about the theory of language and I performed my own work. Everything flowed to me in 2009 and I gathered all of it up – each event, each reading, each essay, each poem or prose piece that I wrote, became a site of research. At the end of 2009, I realized: this will be my path. In July of 2010, I graduated with a certificate in creative writing from SFU’s writing and publishing program.


Each day, each week, I discover new paths, new ways of seeing and one pivotal discovery which has spear-headed these notes, as mentioned to you, is the reading of Stephen Collis, “The Life-Long Poem,” (Poetic Front, April 13, 2010): that essay contains not only Stephen’s notes on his own project, but a list of authors he considers as writers of the “life-long poem”: I have printed out Collis’ list of “possible life-long poems” and pasted the list onto the front of an orange notebook which I take to the library: Wordsworth, Whitman, Pound, Williams, Zukosky (I would add Reznikoff), Olson, Blaser, Duncan, bp Nichol, Silliman, Wah, and DuPlessis.


Around the time of discovering Collis’ The Barricades Project, I discovered the fragments of a poem by the writer, M.NourbeSe Philip, in the poem sequence, ferrum, found in Zong! When I read ferrum, a great excitement came over me, and some connection occurred between the words scattered on the page, with its spaces and silences, and my own interests and impulses. I began to study interruptions, disruptions to syntactical order, that at first reading seemed indecipherable, but then became not just intelligible, but perfect.  And then I met the author in Vancouver: November 29, 2009. Transformative. I’m still resonating with /contemplating that meeting, our conversation, six/seven years ago! That’s a good example of what I think of as “in-habitation” within a life-long poem. The way I seem to have to take things in, real slow.

And the idea of a living/lived chronicle more fully came to me after I began to read and am still reading, John Ashbery’s Flowchart. Also, Michael Turner’s essay, “to show, to give, to make it be there” and his curated exhibition, Expanded Literary Practices in Vancouver, 1954-1969, and all the artists and writers mentioned there and in Collis’ work, and yes, rob, all the poets and their work, and your interviews of them, at your various sites: I try and delve into that learning; and, then, always, there are the guy-poets of that thing once known as Canon: Donne, Chaucer, Dante, Yeats, Eliot, Frost,  that I’m still exploring and learning about.  This morning, on my desk: Renee Gladman’s trilogy: Event Factory/The Ravickians, Ana Patova crosses a Bridge, which I read as a long poem; plus, Baghdad, The City in Verse (Reuven Snir); also a copy of Lionel Kearns’ Convergences, also, a downloaded copy of the Senate investigative report in CIA torture released about two years ago; also, Reznikoff’s Testimony, which my husband has been reading...the beat goes on.

Q: I would also, just off the top of my head, include Robert Kroetsch, Dennis Cooley, Chris Turnbull, a rawlings and jwcurry as potential “life-long poem” practitioners. But I’m curious about your suggestion that the project will stretch beyond a single genre: will novels be part of this project as well? Have you deliberately conceptualized a project that will encompass all you produce?

A: ...yes, yes re Robert Kroetsch (Field Notes a continuing influence) et al. I will have to add a rawlings and jwcurry to my library list

Re other genres: yes, since 2008 I’ve been working (on and off, and for last few years, much more off as I completed children of air india), on those two novels (as per notes below)...and here’s how I see the first three completed volumes of tcp:

Volume 1: children of air india

Volume 2: the Heart of this Journey bears all Patterns (in several books, known as thot-j-bap)

Volume 3: the New Douglas Chronicles

And yes: although I didn’t realize it at first, after conversations about life-long poems and much rumination about chronicle-obsessions, I do conceptualize a project that encompasses all I produce/make.

Q: Given the stretch of the project, how do you see the project developing? Where do you see your work heading? Once the first three volumes are completed, for example, will the project simply open up further, or have you a specific destination (or several) in mind?

A: thecanadaproject seems to contain many more threads, sequences, than I can keep up with: I think this has to do with being permanently in a state of Archive Fever (Derrida), of cleaving to documents, language, bits and pieces:


-a new sequence of prose poems/essay fragments inspired by D.Marlatt’s Steveston, about the village, Paldi, which inspired a series of place-poems that first appeared in children of air india

-different iterations of the collaboration air india [redacted], the music, theatre, poetry, visual projections work that premiered November, 2015.

-a sequence of poems inspired by what Amber Dawn has termed, “femme,” which I interpret as a state of being: “brown, asymmetrical, and silver” aka: Mrs. Downtown Saturday Night

-a new series of “place/transit” poems that seem to arise every time I spend my poet laureate days in Surrey, crossing the Fraser River

-an epistolary sequence, forthcoming in an anthology about public mourning, to be published by University of Alberta Press, “air india un/sent”...

-a research essay embedded with poetry about the life of my father as a S.Asian United Church minister (just started in 2015, we’ll see how it goes)

Always, what drives the poetry forward is a sense of sound/cadence/rhythm as well as images, and the interest, the call, is in how the parts align/dis/align, the gaps between, the possibilities of arrangement, in addition to whatever else the poem demands, word by word, syllable by syllable, line by line.

In terms of where the work might go: the realization of the long poem is always foremost: how to keep the line, how to allow the poem to drive forward across vast distances. There is something “Siberia in Winter” about writing long poems...

Also, the fragment. Also, textures, silences, how to score silence inside language....the surface feel of things, objects: I wish I could figure out a way to be receptive enough to discern how to translate texture into language.

Once the first three volumes are completed: well, it took me five years to complete volume one, children of air india; and I’ve been writing the novels and volume two since 2008, so, mainly, I just think one poem at a time, one sequence at a time, one volume at a time, in terms of ms completion. As for poetry itself, every day is a site of research. Being inside a life-long poem chronicle produces a kind of kinetic energy, easily morphing into anxiety: so much to write, so little time. The only antidote is to do the work.

Q: I’ve long been fascinated by the possibilities of the fragment. What is your relationship to the fragment, and what do you see it achieving that couldn’t be possible otherwise?

A: about working with the fragment: it is, these days, a response to Incoming, the pervasive text, all around us; it is my poet’s relation to the notion of going inside the syntax of language, in order to inhabit a lived space, that is more than description. Something about the times we find ourselves in (have all poets at all times felt this?), that tension between living in relative comfort and security and everything else that the people of this world face, every day; something about the nature of the internet, of the age of digital (what someone once termed, the age of Staccato, in reference to 19th century/20th century advertising); about my poet’s response to fast, rather than to slow and the tension between—

I think the fragment as a means of discourse, for me, is somehow tied into my being so porous, that language rhythms and cadences are caught and held and poured over and ruminated over, and stored for a long time, for decades, and yet the world demands response time measured in seconds, in minutes.

It is about the speed of dissemination and if one is porous, and gathering fragments, how to then represent these fragments—I’m still sorting out my way with the fragment, which is very much involved in how I’m writing volume 2 of thecanadaproject: thot-j-bap: Is there a tension in the fragment between description and representation, between nanosecond and eternity, the way we cannot capture the thing most imminent?

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A:  Friday, Dec. 4, 2015: Dear rob, I write to u from surrey on my new android. Miss my old flip phone. As I begin my new position as Surrey poet laureate, energy these days comes in real-time exploration of place, culture, language: eg, the Punjabi-Hindi tunes playing in the cab I’m in and the conversations I’m having in English about Urdu n Punjabi poetry, with a cab driver who regales me with Surrey stories.

For a list of my current readings, pls see the books cited in our exchange about the books on my desk (Gladman, Kearns, Reznikoff).  Also, Jeff Derksen (The Vestiges), Jaqueline Turner (The Ends of the Earth). In late November, I attended an afternoon salon in Fort Langley with former poet laureate of Edmonton, E.D. Blodgett: was spell-bound in the winter light, listening to his reading of a sequence of poems in his book, Musical Offering (Coach House, 1986).

As well, I’ve started to run in the mornings, very much beginner and I’m contemplating Murakami’s writing on the connections btwn a running practice n a writing practice. 

Also, later today I’ll attend my first Zumba class: so energy comes, ultimately, from the body and as Jack Gilbert says, from the dance most of all.

XRSS October – December, 2015

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