Thursday, April 22, 2010

12 or 20 questions: with Faizal Deen

Faizal Deen was born in Georgetown, Guyana in 1968 and lives in Ottawa, Canada. He is the author of Land Without Chocolate, a Memoir (1999), shortlisted for the A.M. Klein Prize in Poetry from the Quebec Writer's Federation in 2000. At present, he is working on two new books of poetry, The Best Ghosts in The World, a Film and The Pornography of Harry Persaud and hopes to read publicly from both of these works over the course of 2010. He has won several awards, including prizes from the League of Canadian Poets and from the Asian American Writers Workshop in New York, New York. His work was anthologized last year in the highly acclaimed, LAMBDA award-winning, Our Caribbean, A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles (2009), edited by Thomas Glave.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first book made me realize more than ever that my "career" had to be in writing. That I was a writer. A poet. And, for the first time, I was able to see that certain joys in my life up until then had always been connected to my ability to say things in ways that resonated with friends, family, teachers, examiners, listeners, readers and publishers, at least for the first book. Land Without Chocolate, A Memoir. Maria Jacobs of Wolsak and Wynn in Toronto really loved the MSS and bought Land

I am writing two books and both have been in creation for almost 10 years now. 

The Best Ghosts in The World was conceived right after Land and The Pornography of Harry Persaud came out of Ghosts and some themes I was flirting with at the time without realizing they would mature in my thinking over the years and come to inform where I am now. 

They feel more mature and the voices of these books could not have emerged had I not allowed myself to live away from writing for the last 10 years, teaching and traveling.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I have never written fiction. Non-fiction, I suppose, if you count the essays, one I wrote on Edgar Mittelholzer, a fascinating Guyanese novelist who needs to be reinvestigated and reread and republished; and the other, on Jean Rhys and, in a way, Roland Barthes.

Poetry was what I always would imagine myself writing and creating. In fact, adopting the pose of the poet in Grade 8 (yes, the romanticization began early!), meant becoming dedicated to as much learning as I could get out of school because everything I gained from books and classes and the adults teaching me-all of it made me excited in my mind. 

When I was an undergraduate at Queen's in the late 80s/early 90s, I won my first poetry award. Those poems are still around in some form or the other. A friend of mine in London has a whole bunch and enjoys showing them to me because I don't recognize the voice at all and because I can't find any truth in them other than nervous laughter at the thought that those poems emblematize the actual beginning, the real juvenalia, of my life in poems.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially 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?

I stopped trying to write another book after Land was published because, well, I had nothing to say and what I did end up saying, the second book, The Best Ghosts in the World, was inscrutable and had no point of entry (into the text) for readers.

So, that book has gone through several stages and I have enjoyed immensely watching it evolve and almost make itself, depending on where I am living in the world. That book went through several stages not because I am a perfectionist but because I knew that what I had written in 2001 were the "field notes" to myself before doing the work that would make poems out of those "notes." 

Once I'm done with the poems that emerge from the initial notes (also poems) then I'd like to submit both versions as one text. Does that make sense?

The second manuscript, The Pornography of Harry Persaud, doesn't have several different versions or drafts. Poems are worked on depending on whether or not I have a raw kind of inspiration for them.

I trust myself to never forget a poem and end up never completing it, never letting it into my inspiration.

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?

That's a good question. I remember Michael Ondaatje saying that The English Patient began with just one random image he had in his mind, of a man falling out of a burning plane. I forget where he said that. But he said it. And I loved this talk of origins, for and of the worlds artists bring into being, when they make things.

Land began in Kingston, Jamaica in 1992. I was teaching and living there. I was sitting in my aunt's backyard and listening to New Order on my Walkman. Her flat was right across the street from the Bob Marley Museum. It was the height of identity politics in the UNIs and I felt armed and dangerous. I felt good. I was listening to "Temptation" and the lines, "Oh you've got green eyes, oh, you've got blue eyes, oh you've got reeeeeeeed eyes..." and I started the Mango Psalms. That was it.

Four years later my mother died and the grief was enough to see me finish the MSS.

Ghosts began after watching The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, realizing that in grieving the loss of my mother I was always watching the past in my mind the way I would watch a film and assess it's various parts. Like what I did in London last month when I was watching Shutter Island.

Harry Persaud began in gay bathhouses and saunas.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I love reading publicly. I really believe that all art is for public consumption, even and especially art that might have been made just to keep one person alive or in life or to make sense of life. It has the power to transform you or, if you don't need transforming, to be a correspondent, to engage, dialogically, with the world around you. 

But, I don't write with a public audience in mind. Though I love fantasizing about how it would all sound and mean to listeners. 

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?

Those (theoretical concerns) tend to be made more aware to me by scholars and readers who have written essays or papers about my poems.

However, I would say that there is a theoretical concern that is quite prominent at the moment in my writing. That would be the issue of homosexuality within and against and through West Indian locations, there and here, and what the spirit world thinks of it all. Are the ancestors also fighting it and fighting us-the queer present-from the realm of the "other" senses? I think a lot about what it might mean to be ruled out of a collective history because of your sexual orientation, to be thought of as unworthy of carrying the lines of family and inheritance into the future as a result of one's two-spiritedness. This is obviously my own version of a ghost story/a horror tale of some kind. Against histories of catastrophe (slavery, plantations, indentureship, civil riots and debt), the whole idea of the family acquires enormous significances. Family can become the monster that preys upon certain freedoms and choices that reflect the right of succeeding generations to go off in search of their own personal histories, as I say in one poem, "outside/the walls/of Dad."

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 don't really know. I could give you all the inspirational, political and social narratives you've heard before as to the defense of poesy or of the writer or of the artist, etc. In society. In community. In education. In culture. In nationalism. In memory. We could go on and on when talking about art and society now and in the past. 

I guess I would love to be the kind of poet who, even when talking about really, really personal, small things, like having sex for the first time in 1984 in a suburban basement after a session of Dungeons & Dragons, is still able to reveal the need for beauty in the world, as a force, an energy, even as a weapon to show certain folks how absolutely ridiculous their violences are.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

People want the work to read the way it sounds. I don't know what I do live but something happens with the way the words flow. People have tried to say it's West Indian or Caribbean that way and I suppose it is. Because we do sing English; we feel things in a certain kind of way. God, have you ever read Aime Cesaire? That's what Shelley meant in his Defense. Exactly what Cesaire is revealing in his Cahier. It gave me goosebumps!

Editors leave the work alone usually and let it stay in print the way I've read it or written it down. 

Not a lot of my stuff has been workshopped or edited. 

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

"You don't have to write your oeuvre overnight." 

Someone said that to me once when I was experiencing stultifying waves of Duende, as Lorca defined and wrote about it. I felt death and it was interfering with my bursts of inspiration rather than facilitating them.

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

Well, I don't "live" or work as a professional writer all the time. I have supported myself by teaching and through the very wise financial planning of previous generations in my family. What I am saying is that my routines change depending on my personal circumstances. 

Today, I woke up at 10:30 am. I made coffee. I ate some oats with blackberries. I walked my dog, Sabrina. I cleaned some brass objects I inherited from my mother, using Brasso, which brings back so many memories of growing up in Georgetown, Guyana. Product names usually open the floodgates, like MILO and Ovaltine and Dettol and Marmite and TUMS and Strepsils. More, of course.

I write at night. Like James Agee and Timothy Findley, nighttime brings supreme creativity for me. The house sleeps. That's when I fire up the archipelagoes of imagination.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

That's a good one. You know, I don't have writer's block. I can always write stuff but if I think it's crap then I just stop writing and do other things. Like teach and earn a paycheck and strap on my backpack, Pete (that's his name) and go off and see the world. When I lived in Japan and Korea, teaching English or writing English books, I hardly wrote poems. But I was always writing in my head, always observing, always feeling, always imagining. I was living which is what poetry is about and where it comes from: you live something you must make the body of the poem out of it or it isn't real or you lose what it taught you or how it transformed you and then there is no sharing through a reader or a listener of what you lived. Again, correspondence. It's such a huge part of art and making art, especially necessary art, like the stuff that saves people's lives or leads them even further into the cul-de-sacs. Like Almodovar's All About My Mother.

I just go back to the poem I can't figure out later. Doesn't make one very prolific. But, then again, the time always has to be right for me and thankfully it always arrives, that dawn of knowing or recognition.

12 - If there was a fire, what's the first thing you'd grab?

My dog. Sabrina. Non-human nature is the most prominent teacher in my life. That said, I don't know much about flowers or plants. I'd love to learn more though.

13 - 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?

He's right. But, of course, for some of us, books come from music or movies or people we've known or conversations we've had or eavesdropped on or oral histories passed down through family or community members, among so many other sources.

Poems happen that way. Individual poems, long poems, sequences, vignettes. I am writing a poem at the moment that begins from the refrain heard in Wong Kar-Wai's film, Happy Together: "We could start over?"

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

From 11 pm to 3 am. These hours produce the bulk of my writing. They are very sensitive, fragile hours and, unfortunately, even a disagreement with a friend or a misunderstanding with a family member can upset a kind of emotional balance I need in order to write. This is why I cannot socialize a lot when I am actively feeling like I am working on something with an ending or that will end soon and will be the next book or poem.

At the moment, a particular rendition of a jazz classic is important to my work. The Miles Davis Quintet Live in Tokyo performing a 12 minute My Funny Valentine.  Bliss. Instant inspiration. You can dream so deeply in this Valentine! Because so much of The Pornography of Harry Persaud is influenced by old jazz vocal standards, I just melt every time I listen to it and I write with the feeling that Harry will have a conclusion and people will get a chance to hear the poems being read live.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

God, I'd love to travel through South America and leave Guyana for the very last destination! I'd love to travel across Canada with an impossible man and feel myself falling in love as we make our way into Manitoba. Well, I'd take the opportunity just to see more of Canada and write about it. I guess, in terms of writing, I would LOVE to make travel writing that people would enjoy reading. 

16 - 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?

All my dream jobs are in writing or publishing contexts. I REALLY admire editors of small or large publishing houses, magazines, zines, etc. I love film critics and really good film criticism. Anything in these areas.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Just had to. And, it's the only thing that I feel certain about.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I don't know about books because I haven't read a novel in awhile and I tend to read only sections or parts of the non-fictions that draw me in. But, I will say, about poems, I have been rereading a lot of Leonard Cohen, Flowers For Hitler and Parasites of Heaven, in particular. I am always reading and rereading and thinking about the work of Garcia Lorca and Pablo Neruda. (Neruda destroys and rebuilds me each and every time. Oh God! Don't get me started!) 

I MUST READ Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go It will be my first novel in some time.

Let The Right One In is an AMAZING film. I think about that film constantly. I think it's a masterpiece and I'll feel the same way about it forever. I felt that way about Agnieszka Holland's Europa, Europa and still do.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I am pulling The Best Ghosts in the World into its final version and I am writing The Pornography of Harry Persaud. That's enough. And, I am fortunate enough to have the time to be able to focus just on these works.

Some early versions of the Harry Persaud stuff were anthologized last year in Our Caribbean, Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles (Duke UP), edited by the amazing Thomas Glave. It's done very well!

There's quite a lot actually of work going on my study. There are some other poems that I've started writing that I want for something bigger, something about the erotics of foreignness. We'll see what happens.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Faizal, I will always carry you out of the desert. We will always carry each other out. This took me back to so much - the morning you got the letter from the publishers; the Double Agent Trio; and on and on. It is, to quote your poetry, "in me so deep no broom can beat it out."