Monday, December 07, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Moez Surani

Moez Surani's poetry and short fiction have been widely published in Canada. He has won the Kingston Literary Award, the Dublin Quarterly’s Poem of the Year and most recently a Chalmers Arts Fellowship which supported a research stint to India and East Africa. He'll be moving to Switzerland in January to begin a writing residency where he'll focus on a novel. Reticent Bodies (Wolsak & Wynn, 2009) is his first collection of poems.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

I feel more serious now. I also feel closer to my friends.

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

I came to fiction first – as a reader at least. But when I began to write, I was interested how meaning could be embedded in sound and rhythm and texture. The echoes or ironies or shifting relationship between content and form interest me. Poems are the best place for that kind of enquiry.

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?

It seems to depend on the speed and tone of the work. Most of “Ally Dolle” was written quickly, I think, on just one page in small writing, then I went for a walk and when I came back I wrote the bar scene that’s towards the end of that poem. “Country of the Blue” was written in pieces over a few days. “Realpolitik” was another quick one; the title took a few weeks to come though. I’m not a note-taker. The language I want is in the colour and mood of that initial impulse, so if I get the impulse I’d like to write then and there instead of preserving it in notes as a linguistic half-measure.

4 - Where does a poem or piece of fiction 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 with an image or sound. A piece of fiction is more likely to begin with a situation or dialogue or with a character. I don’t cobble things together. Like most people who are fascinated by minimalism, there’s an idea or essence that I’m very interested in, which cobbling would mar.

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

Going to readings and listening and meeting people afterwards is more a part of the creative process for me than giving them. I usually get a bit edgy the day of a reading but afterwards I can feel a catharsis.

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 don’t have a consistent doctrine. The concern I have when I’m writing is how do I deliver this poem or this idea or this impulse purely. All I care about is if I’ve rendered it. If you render it well, the theoretical things will exist, you wont have to be conscious of them. They will be there and finessed and exist within an interesting gestalt of ideas.

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?

There isn’t a generic role. Each writer creates their own role. You do what you’re capable of and what you deserve or need. I don’t think a writer has an obligation to be a public intellectual, unless their oeuvre has an activist bent to it. Then I think if something happens, such as the Iraq War, you should speak up. Otherwise the nice, left wing writing just looks like an attempt to be hip. When that war began and there was silence in the editorial pages – like nothing from writers – I looked at my shelf and thought why have I paid all this money for these books written by these lefties – why all these left leaning historical fictions? – where are their voices now? If you give the impression that you’re in that arena then silence is complicity.

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

I enjoyed working with Jeanette Lynes on this book. I feel lucky to have had her opinions steer the last phase of this book. She delivered good suggestions and explained her rationale so well that when I went through her edits, I felt as if I was seeing the poems in Reticent Bodies with fresh eyes. Working with Carolyn Smart is essential; whenever I write something where I’ve taken a risk that I can’t tell has worked or not it goes to her. I have a couple other friends who are excellent readers too: I value responses from people who have hard minds and who aren’t clouded by perceptions of intellectualism.

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

I have trouble taking maxims seriously. Those phrases seem to be the kind of thing that a dedicated writer sets out to destroy. The best things people have given me aren’t verbal or articulate or conscious. Carolyn Smart gave me confidence and pushed me, almost relentlessly. Steven Heighton, I can’t even remember what he said, but after spending some time with him – my poems were becoming more dense and compact, with just these miniscule shifts – after spending time with him they cracked open and flow longer and larger now across the line and down the page. There isn’t any one line of wisdom they said that I orient myself around, but they got through to me.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

In that first impulse I can tell what genre it is, so it isn’t a matter of me moving, but rather discerning. It’s like catching Frisbees and putting the yellow ones on one side of you and the blue ones on the other.

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?

When I was working I got up early and put a few hours in in the morning. This fall though I’ve been using a Canada Council grant and haven’t needed to hold a job so that routine has fallen away. I’m happily erratic now.

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

I don’t think you can seek out inspiration. It isn’t conscious or methodical. I can seek out certain books or authors but that’s more to fill in my reading than fire up my writing. When I get tired, or get to feel strained, then I back off.

13 - What do you really want?

What I want changes from day to day. One day I’ll want to write something that’s good and true and beautiful and the next day I’ll see through that and want something crass or absurd or subversive. I also go back and forth on the role of politics in art or poetry. Some days it seems to be the most relevant thing, then other days, or in other mindsets, that interest makes me feel naïve.

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 come from experiences and thoughts, which are then whirled up in the imagination. They may be delivered by what a writer knows about craft and art, but I don’t know if a deep, textured work could be made purely from other books.

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

I’ve made friends with a lot of writers – in Montreal when I was there for a couple years and now in Toronto. I like reading their work and hearing what they’re reading or how a story or poem came together for them or what they’re going through.

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

I’d like to raise a family.

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?

Well, I recently kicked down a friend’s door so I’ve been considering a foray into crime.

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

What I wanted to read didn’t seem to be there. I couldn’t find it. I see all of these absences when I read, and missed opportunities. The other thing is that – if you have the writing instinct – reading can feel like you’re standing over someone’s shoulder and if you keep seeing the missing dimensions you get frustrated and just want to take the pen yourself.

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

I liked Bolano’s Amulet. His best work seems to exist in a moment of pure creation. It’s like he’s always at the instant of the big bang when the universe is flying apart; he manages to do away with the artifice of rising action and dénouement and those kinds of things. I saw a great movie a few days ago: Police, Adjective. A dark and charming Romanian movie with some very long scenes – there are a couple of long, beautiful meal scenes. They didn’t edit out the silences or condense conversations; they let the cameras roll so it’s the actors’ timing that win the scenes.

20 - What are you currently working on?

The past couple of weeks I’ve been working on some short fiction pieces. They’re like dark little parables. Soon I’ll wrap this up and focus on a novel.

12 or 20 questions (second series);

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