Asher Ghaffar's first book of poetry, Wasps in a Golden Dream Hum a Strange Music, is published with ECW Press. His work has been featured in LITERARY REVIEW OF CANADA, THE NEW QUARTERLY, CV2, LICHEN ARTS AND LETTERS PREVIEW, dANDelion, DOUBLE ROOM, and other journals. He is the recipient of recent grants from The Canada Council for the Arts and Ontario Arts Council. Currently Asher is working on an experimental novel, in addition to a doctoral degree in social and political thought at York University.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I met some cool people. I felt more alienated. I realized that poetry has to be put on stage.
Seriously though, I felt that experimental poetry was the wrong move for a person of color in a scene that is predominantly white. That only a fool would be drawn to write poetry. A kind of hopeless despair that turned out to be generative in the end. It turned out be generative because I realized that reaching a dead end is probably a good thing.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
It was the only thing I was good at. However, I really wanted to make a novel even as I was writing poetry. Since the story I was searching for continued to collapse, I decided what I was doing was probably closer to poetry, or prose poetry.
I'm suspicious of genres to some degree, but I do think they exist and it's important to work in a genre if only to try to alter it, or question it from within. That questioning isn’t really a conscious intent on my part. One has to feel sufficiently tormented to work between genres. Eventually that torment quiets down into what most people call poetry.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing intitially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Recently, I opened a document of 4 or 5 poems, and it was like entering a room. You know when you're writing a ms when it becomes a place, the only place where you can possibly exist. If I can’t find that sense of urgency, I search for it.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
A poem usually begins in a psychological space that I can't rationally grasp. I call these places in myself ‘traces,’ but I’m not really thinking of Derrida here, more about those spaces where absence speaks. I’m not certain if I’ll always begin work in places like this, or if there are rules. Recently, I found myself yelling at a television and this provided a starting point for a line that began:
We shout alone at a TV
and when come to our senses
we realize we might be mad.
After our name, blood thins
progressively and death is
a ferris wheel in a whirling brain
of no tomorrow.
Before Isreal started
Before Isreal started
In seamless dreams
Darwish and Celan
are read together.
I usually don’t write explicitly political poetry like this, but I felt the urge. Not sure if I’ll use any of this raw material.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I've only done one reading and it went well. I want to do readings with other people helping me to read my work, or with musicians. I'm working with the director, Vance Chow and the group Lal right now on a short film and I hope to do more work with them in the future. A lot of what I do deals involves many conflicting voices, voices converging, voices collapsing against one another, voices wrestling against one another. So it demands more than me present.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Lots of theory is built into my work, but it is not usually theory I read in a book. It’s more like body theory. How does my body move in space, for example, and what sort of social content can I draw from this? Is there an aesthetics to walking and should this poem stagger?
I'm fascinated by social theory, but it usually sleeps the night before it works itself in a poem. Sometimes a framework can help conceptualize a poem. Right now I'm obsessed with revolving doors, stone archways, places between places. I'm not certain if one can theorize such a space, but the more I enter into it, the more it seems to be the place of poetry, a place of not knowing, a place of ontological uncertainty, dissonance and blending – perhaps love. Any way, I wanted to return to Bachelard, but I realized that he would probably direct my creative process too much. Sometimes I turn to theologians to help me conceptualize shit.
After a day: Now that I think of it, yes, I guess I do use theory. But I don’t use one theory. I try to bring theories beside one another so they are each questioned. So were the 7/7 tube bombing the result of alienation, fundamentalism, or racism? If I bring these paradigms together, there is a crisis of signification. That’s what interests me…I don’t care about theory for the sake of theory, or to make a cool sounding poem. I want to use theory to help represent multiple conflicting paradigms. I think Marx is overrated. Postcolonialism is overrated. Social psychology is overrated etc. That none of these helps me to understand the 7/7 bombings, since we’re using this as an example. What interests me a crisis of signification between critical thought.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I was just talking the comedian Anand Rajaram about my experience of reading Nathalie Stephens. I don't usually return to books. I return to her books because they give me a key to a unconcious room. Her work make me feel what I'm always feeling, but have trouble articulating.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It helps, I think, when the editor has a sense of what you're doing. In my case, I was fortunate to have Michael Holmes, Stuart Ross and Stan Dragland as editors. They're all humble and know how to listen into texts.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Get a day job. Get out of the academy (I'm trying to do both). Don't do an MFA. Do an MFA. Stay in the academy. I don’t know…
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
The appeal probably is that in-between makes the head revolve, and in the process something interesting emerges from lost traces.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don't have a routine. Once I start a text and am into it, I can spend a couple of hours working on it day. Other times, I don’t write or read at all.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Watch a film.
13 - Have you have a lucky charm?
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I generally don’t connect to categorical statements like this. I don’t know where books come from. Maybe they come from dreams. Life experience. Just feeling and being with the body in all possible states. Not trying to escape discomfort on any level of the body-mind.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I love a lot of the stuff coming out of US experimental scene. I've read John Keene's Annotations about thirty times. I generally like work that is both lyrical and experimental, so G.C. Waldrep’s work moves me. I’m reading more novels lately, but I’m not yet certain what I like…
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Learn how to sing.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I like teaching right now. It gets me out of my head.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
In my last undergraduate year, I pestered Frank Davey enough that he took me on. Without his help, it probably would have taken me a couple of more years to work through a text. He encouraged me and didn't give a fuck what I sent him. He also helped give me insight into my own work. This sort of made me feel that I might have something to say. Later, G.C. Waldrep mentored me. We both designed a course, and it was one of the most intellectually stimulating courses I have ever taken. I’ve been lucky at finding mentors that allowed me to experiment.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Frantz Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression and Persepolis.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A short film, a novel, and what looks to be a book of poems.
12 or 20 questions archive (second series);