Phinder Dulai is the Vancouver-based author of dream / arteries (Talonbooks) and two previous books of poetry: Ragas from the Periphery (Arsenal Pulp Press, 1995) and Basmati Brown (Nightwood Editions, 2000). His most recent work has been published in Canadian Literature and Cue Books Anthology. Earlier work appeared in Ankur, Matrix, Memewar Magazine, Rungh, The Capilano Review, Canadian Ethnic Studies, Toronto South Asian Review, subTerrain, and West Coast LINE. Dulai is a co-founder of the Surrey-based interdisciplinary contemporary arts group The South of Fraser Inter Arts Collective (SOFIA/c).
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book was validation for my poetic practice and the experimentation I was doing with the English language in the multiple vernaculars of English within one’s private, public and work life. It also centered my life experience as a South Asian male, an immigrant and as a creative person seeking a space for praxis that did not fall into the usual migrant testimonial of marginalization. I chose the title intentionally because it was straddling that poetic tension of the centre and the peripheral – like the experience of working as a parking lot attendant at an opulent hotel.
dream / arteries (published by Talonbooks), is a major departure from the first and second books; in fact all 3 books are different books of poetry.
dream / arteries really seeks to situate different perspectives on historical documentation, one’s relationship to the archive and public records, and exploring ideas of positing a poetic counter-surveillance record and considering what that might look like 100 years outside of a maritime migration arrival.
2014 marks a centenary of the Japanese steamship Komagata Maru which set sail for Canada with 376 Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu migrants travelling from Punjab, India. They were refused entry at Vancouver, even though all passengers were British subjects. The Komagata Maru sat moored in Vancouver’s harbour for two months while courts decided the passengers’ right to access – while the city’s white citizens lined the pier taunting those onboard. Eventually, Canada’s racist exclusion laws were upheld and the ship was forced to return to India. I decided to explore the story of the ship given the rich surveillance record of the ship’s arrival. The ship itself had a nautical history of 36 years where it served as a migrant ship between 1890 to 1907 bringing Russians, Ukrainians (then also Russian and Serbo-Austrian), Italians, Greeks, English, Ottoman and Armenian passengers to the New World, making port on Ellis Island, Montreal and Halifax, as well as, Hong Kong, Japan, India and Constantinople. The names it went by was ss. Stubbenhuk and ss Sicilia. For this book I drew on a global collection of ship records, nautical maps, passenger manifests, and the rich, detailed record of the Komagata Maru.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I recall how poetry arrived into my mind and heart. I grew up with watching my parents be creative in their own ways – my mother sang Hindi filmi songs into an old Hitachi tape recorder with her large beehivish pitch black 1970s hairdo. My father would sing old Punjabi and Urdu songs and poems during family get-togethers with our relatives. As a teenager I fully experienced the beauty of poetry from learning about poetry in grade 11 English class – the poem that transfixed me was TS Eliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I think the reasons were how Eliot mapped the social psyche of self-doubt, vulnerability and awkward silences; potent for a teenage mind.
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 am a slow writer, a slow but methodic researcher and I take some time to explore ideas through what one might call an Ent-ish approach to coming to some centre of the thinking. I have always been this way. Word threads permeate my mind often. I might hold on to those threads for a few weeks, possibly a month or two; even a year or more. When I do have the moment to write the first draft I normally will take a day or two for a full first draft.
In 2012 I undertook a writing residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts, where I managed to write a sequence of poems over a ten-day period that resulted in 12 first draft poems being written that make up a some of the Komagata Maru section of my recent book of poems – dream / arteries. Now I find it kind of humorous to think that a 40 page section of the book containing poetry, a fictive letter, fictional sources, factual sources, archival notes and pseudo surveillance documentation was the result of four years of painstaking research, reading, collating, recording and revisiting of facts; in addition to seeking out obscure sources of information regarding this ship’s history. I keep telling myself I should have done more with the information I collated, but then I come back to a grounding thought for my praxis – fewer words and precise words.
Each time I have moved an MS to book stage I will usually seek out some other eyes for an external perspective on the work. My first drafts go through such a editing process. During this phase I will usually make structural changes, deleting phrasing that does not work, changing stanzas and even shifting word sequences from one stanza to the next to see the potential arc of the poetic space the work is inhabiting. What I am always trying to do is to create textual constriction and torque the language. The experience a reading of a resonant poem tends to have this tension - one that is both intimate to the reader, and expansive in the generative space of meaning and the reader’s inner visual imagining of the world within the poem.
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?
In my waking dreams where word sequences visit me during the day and I catch them and store them away in a sparse memory palace I have in my mind.
I never think about a book until more than half way through the MS. A book emerges probably sometime during the writing of the final 3rd section of a working manuscript at the first draft stage. That is when I can see the possibilities and envision the scope and space of the book and also what I might envisage of the book as a produced entity; or otherwise, if the MS is really just a fragmented collection of not fully realized poems or poems sequences. Then I go back and work on it further.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings. While I was of British birth and a Canadian upbringing, as a Punjabi, I have a strong oral tradition that has always been part of my thinking about how poetry works; even though I consider myself a poet that is on the page. The Punjabi language is rich and has a great history of being a lingual vehicle for many great Punjabi poets who have been Sufi poets, Sikh Poets, Secular Poets and Atheist Poets.
Giving public readings allows me to shift tones, explore the expansiveness of voice and explore the oral and aural scope of the poem and where I might use or not use pauses. Sometimes I will shift slightly the breath of the poem to work the emotive palate and see if the listener is impacted differently with a poem that I have read a number of times and in different ways. I like to explore these subtle ways to see how the spoken word space either builds a further node for a reader to experience poetry and also after a reading whether the listener generates a meaningful experience from listening and watching me perform a poem.
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?
I shall leave theoretical considerations and questions to the reader. There are many themes and questions to consider; I have attempted to explore these ideas through dream / arteries. One expansive but quiet conversation taking place within dream / arteries is exploring what humanity looks like as it relates to journey, migration and exile.
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?
What does larger culture mean for any person or individual? Does the writer have a role? I would say yes and no – yes because I strongly believe that in context to and specific to writing and mapping the world that I live in, or even re-mapping the world I live in, brings with it some potential to foreground and bring salience to public and civil society discourses, ideas that neither are straddle that very thin space of ambiguity that neither invests in a nationalist paradigm, nor seeks to advance a formal political tract. What I do attempt to do is what I think poets do what has always been done since early humans began practicing an observable artistic phenomena - capture the nuanced, the visible and invisible, and reflect on the quotidian aspects of life within a community and allow the potential for those observations to generate meaning for the reader and bring the reader into the space of that experience so that it is the reader who walks away with a generative meaning and resonance. Living in this contemporary moment; with the passage of modernity and within the context of a contemporary post colonial and post modern moment; a moment that even now seeks a life beyond a nationalist dream, there is a role for the poet to speak, provoke and evoke response and engagement through the work created; creating both the horrors and the beauty in our communities, neighbourhoods and within our families.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I have always found an external editor essential. The process can sometimes be tense as this requires the acknowledgement of the author to reconsider some things about the approach that was taken. For dream / arteries my first editor, good friend and teacher Roy Miki asked me to focus on the flow of the first section and editing and finalizing the sections of the book so there was a natural transition between the sections. I also deleted four poems from the finished book and I am very thankful to my good friend and Editor Jeff Derksen for suggesting the process to decide on eliminating them and pushing me to ask critical questions of myself during this process.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to journalistic prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I have failed a few times in writing a short treatment to begin novels, but I think maybe I was not ready to break out of the poetics at the time. I have revised that thinking lately. Some subject matter material requires different forms of genre or as I did with dream / arteries a weave of forms. Currently I am looking to write a longer narrative. At this point I am not sure if this work into a series of short fictions or a longer piece such as a novel.
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 actually don’t have a daily routine. I have a writing book now that I will write down phrasing. I have a daily routine of consigning poetic phrasing in my mind that I will ruminate and have a conversation with myself to see if the ideas behind the image-based phrasing speaks truth to me. If it does then I move it to the page.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
The only way to proceed with the stall is to proceed with life and live. Meditation and research sometimes helps. Some of the more meditative spaces I tend to find myself in is when I am at home doing housework; while I do these things my mind is slowly moving through the stall; I stalled during the writing of dream / arteries while writing through the poem about Mewa Singh Lopoke, the subject of the poem “(psalms) to the four clergy.” I was seeking to create a moment or scenario in this person’s life and animate and explore this further, while Mewa Singh awaits the gallows; and where his space of reflection would be. The reason for this particular writing stall was what is documented as the public record; and what is considered anecdotal oral and community stories of how Mewa Singh existed within the community of faith as a Sikh, and in relationship to a group of revolutionaries of the Ghadr Party; he was most likely both a foot soldier and a willing martyr as both a Sikh and secular revolutionary. Where I found a potential for writing was to really look into the chasm of solitude that Mewa Singh would have experienced; and thread that and overlay that experience to my exploration of that documentation; hence I found the breakthrough moment for this poem; it is damn hard sometimes to break away from two fully realized and documented histories that are diametrically opposed to each other; especially if you have a familial and philosophical connection to both. dream /arteries is as much about creating overlays and under lays to the subject matter.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
No frills chicken curry medium spiced with all the condiments and five rotis; compliments of my mother Gian Kaur Sokar and her masala.
The smell of baked almonds and cooling Speculas Cake – a dutch cake that my wife/partner Jane Cleary Dulai prepares and who is half Dutch; actually, anything she prepares reminds me of home.
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?
Books do not come exclusively from other books. It is just not possible and maybe Mr. McFadden was posturing up some highbrow humour.
I am part of an artist run collective – South Of Fraser Inter Arts Collective (SOFIA/c). We are an inter-disciplinary group. I have always been that way so the visual arts, music and film have always and continue to be influences on how I write poetry. As I shared earlier, India’s many thousands of years of cultural civilization has resulted in a rich repository of many written and unwritten stories; including the oral traditions of story keeping and telling, and the richness of South Asian mythology and the view that poetry really is not poetry if it is not sung out loud and performed with music. In fact the idea of the solitary poet standing up in front of a crowd without an ensemble of musicians is a recent phenomena, and has probably more to do with contemporary legacy of modernity and modernism in Indian cultural ecology today; but am comfortable as a solitary poet offering up words in the quiet night air.
I also am a Star Wars junkie so currently I am reading a book on one of the Sith Lords. If one were to provide a rationale for reading such mainstream popular fiction it might be this – these novels are allegories of what we are living within at this current time; almost all of the global ideological showdowns and struggles, economic disparities and the global capitalist interests are writ large in a number of these novels and written expansively across world systems and galaxies. The allegorize-ation of colonialism and the ethnocentric colonizer is also part of this body of work; oh and yes, I am intrigued by the Sith ways of looking at the world.
I tend to have a few books on the go – currently I am reading (in no particular) The Vestiges (Talonbooks) by Jeff Derksen; From The Poplars (Talonbooks) by Cecily Nicholson; The Outer Harbour (Arsenal Pulp Press) by Wayde Compton and Fauji Banta Singh and Other Stories (TSAR Publishing) by Sadhu Binning. I read these writers as their approaches to writing and exploring their subject matter deeply interests me.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
There have been many writers, critical thinkers, artists, film-makers visual artists, as well as quotidian moments of everyday living, listening, and the collation of ephemera that my poetry and creative antennae pick up on. In terms of writing, this includes literature that is considered ‘high art’ and also popular fiction. My bookshelf includes a range of books by authors who make a home in Canada, the U.S., England and other nations. The first time I read something that absolutely shifted my thinking about narrative time was Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. The novel is truly an innovative fiction and engaged a robust re-consideration of narrative time that was revolutionary; and considering it was published in 1929, it adds more weight to Woolf as a true innovator at a time where the great novels were being celebrated. This is equally true of my second defining reading experience that led me to move my commitment to greater learning and discipline in my embryonic stage of writing, and that was after reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnights Children and reading all of his subsequent novels. Both these novels really did do that for me in terms of then considering how I have looked at how time is sequenced within fiction and poetry, or in poetry’s case, how that flow is really more like dream time – image experiences that one floats through in a disjointed string of dream tableaus experiences. I see a clear connection to the sub-genre of magic realism to my work in poetry; and there are many poets who may not really have this in their lexicon, but I realize for the work I generate, I am always balancing the use of a clear social realism lens with interior lyric mode of address in poetry.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
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?
Bus Driver most likely. I like people and I like to observe the world around me.
Alternatively, I think I would have made a decent Lit Prof.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing is like taking big breaths. To get to a big breath you really do have to be ready to exhale that which has caused some pain to your soul. If I don’t take big breaths then I don’t actually feel very normal. I need to write because the brain does not stop and my body continues to process the world around me. Without writing I would not be as genial and centered.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
20 - What are you currently working on?
12 or 20 (second series) questions;