Anvesh Jain was born in Delhi and moved to Calgary when he was one year old. His poems have appeared in literary magazines in Canada, United States, United Kingdom, Portugal, India, and South Africa. He was an editor at The Hart House Review from 2018 to 2021. Anvesh is a chai enthusiast, and loves cricket. Pilgrim to No Country, published by Frontenac House Press in fall 2022, is his first book.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
When I was younger—though I am still young—I had certain milestones in mind that seemed to suggest fullness, a life well-lived (or at least, better-lived). I wanted to produce a movie, perform a hit song, write a book. At the time of this interview, my debut poetry book, Pilgrim to No Country, is one month away from shipping. I suspect having it in my hands will fill me with relief; the kind of relief that comes with physicality and undeletability. My first book will be a physical tether. An indicator, I hope, of a life in the process of being better-lived.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
In my choice of reading, I’m obsessed with building my foundations and reading lengthy classics. Perhaps it’s an immigrant’s impulse—to demonstrate mastery in the language of the new country, to ingratiate oneself in the traditional canon, to build roots through literature. Whatever it is, I gravitate towards poetry in my writing because of its inherent liberty. Poetry frees me from the trappings of classical foundation.
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?
In Ottawa’s Byward Market there’s a see-through craft noodle shop by the name of Le Mien. Sometimes I take a moment to peer through the windows and appreciate the process of twisting and pulling and shaping. It’s a fantastic metaphor for writing poetry: starting with the dough of an idea and stretching it to the limits of its possible shape. Some days the kitchen is overflowing with dough, and other times you’ll have to be content settling for ready-made cereals and bread-jam. I’m not sure if I’m still talking about poetry. Perhaps I’m just hungry.
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?
My poems are inspired by my experiences or through interactions with other art and artists from across mediums. I will give an example. The other day, a wasp drowned itself in my drink. So I wrote a poem about it. An hour or two later, a friend happened to join me and the incident repeated itself. This time he fished the wasp out of his drink, and it flew away, grateful for the temporary reprieve. So I changed the ending of my original poem.
I never wrote with the intention of publishing a book. I simply wrote, and one day I realized I had more than enough content to justify a manuscript. Pilgrim to No Country reckons, in large part, with my familial past and the cultural schema in which I’ve been raised. If there is a next book, I will endeavour for it to be more forward-looking in its principles and theme.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Publishing one’s work is paradoxical. I want my work to be read, but not by anyone who knows me. I like public readings, but would much rather read to strangers than to family or friends. I’ve recently begun going to and performing at Jeff Blackman and Bardia Sinaee’s 2-for-1 poetry nights on the last Thursday of each month. Hearing from other writers undoubtedly inspires. I keep reminding myself to bring a notepad, though I seldom remember to follow-through.
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?
Is it trite to answer a question with a quote? In my cover letters to various publishers, I frequently mentioned one by Hanif Kureishi:
And indeed I know Pakistanis and Indians born and brought up here who consider their position to be the result of a diaspora: they are in exile, awaiting return to a better place, where they belong, where they are welcome. And there this ‘belonging’ will be total. This will be home, and peace.
My writing, like Kureishi’s productions, is animated by what it means to be a result of a diaspora. Exile is an anguished word, holding vast resonance in the Indic tradition. Our Lord Rama endured vanvaas for fourteen years; like him, we await our return to that place called Ayodhya, synonymous with the concept of total belonging. In the diaspora, we say that India is our Janma-bhumi (land of birth), and that Canada is our Karma-bhumi (land of karmic destiny). We owe a responsibility to both. I write poetry of place, which attempts to reconcile this home-making with myth-making, and this Canada with India.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I see a role for the writer analogous to that of the professional documentarian. My work is meant to preserve in literature certain essential facts: that there was an Indian community in Canada in the 1990s and 2000s, that we lived in certain places, practiced our faith and culture in certain manners, believed in certain ideas, and contributed to Canadian nation-hood in our own multifarious ways. Though writing ought to be universally resonant, I believe it has to be grounded in the local and the particular in order to achieve true authenticity.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Editors and bureaucrats—can’t do with them, can’t do without them, and together constituting the twin banes of one’s existence. Working with an editor is anger-inducing. It’s a savage and adversarial process. That being said, I am eternally grateful to my editor John Wall Barger for his patience and his immense expertise. He knew when to push back, and when to relent. My book is better for his involvement, full-stop and without question.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
That unconventional outcomes require unconventional inputs. I heard that this summer, in an entirely different context to writing, and have since made it my new mantra.
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?
I never force my writing. When it comes, I give myself to my poetry. I allow myself to be subsumed by it. Then there are long and desolate stretches where it never seems to arrive. I took a one-year hiatus after editing Pilgrim to No Country that lasted until this past July. I’m glad to say I’m writing again, though never with any routine in mind.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Writing is my distraction from the stresses and strains of daily life. There are times when I need a distraction from my distraction too. I don’t overly concern myself with dry veins or stalled writing. In those times, I turn to the energetic business of the day-to-day; investing in my legal studies, in my friendships, in cinema, in good books, in social occasions, in religious healing. When the vein runs dry, there is no shame in turning to the replenishments of quotidian being.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Tulsi, neem, sandalwood powder, agarbatti incense sticks. A vacuumed rug. My mother’s cooking. Fallen pines and prairiegrass.
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?
Every interaction has the potential to spark new creative undertakings. Being open and observant allows you to draw inspiration from all the sources you’ve mentioned, and more. I, for one, am especially fascinated by Indian street food vloggers on Facebook.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Hindu liturgy and scripture comforts me. I’m in the process of getting my hands on a faux-leather bound translation of the Valmiki Ramayana. The post-colonial literature of Salman Rushdie, A.K Ramanujan, and V.S Naipaul are of perpetual delight. Mordecai Richler’s work has instantiated Canada within me. In poetry, I like Margaret Atwood, Seamus Heaney, Billy Collins, Bänoo Zan, and Matthew Olzmann.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I have a dream of taking a sabbatical from my career one day to write a full-fledged fiction novel. I think I would really, truly like that.
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?
I don’t suppose it’s too late for me to become an international cricket commentator. Whatever line of work I end up in, I’d like to travel. I want to meet interesting people in interesting places. I want to construct the good-life, well-lived and well-worn.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
We write because we are compelled to. It’s as necessary as that. Writing helps us box in our many insanities and neuroses.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
19 - What are you currently working on?
Law school, finding an internship, finding a suitable answer for my parents when they ask me why I don’t have a girlfriend yet. Getting back into writing poetry and appreciating all the other sources of beauty for which we ought to express thanks.
To keep up with my comings and goings, please visit me at https://anveshjain.com/.