Moez Surani’s fourth book, Are the Rivers in Your Poems Real, is out now with Book*hug Press. It’s a collection of playful, political, urgent poems that ask us to reconsider our relationship to poetry and meaning.
“There’s an urgency and immediacy to Moez Surani’s fourth collection of poems, in which he grapples with the relationship of poetry and its abstractions to reality."—Toronto Star
“[The collection] offers a mixture of poetic styles and approaches in affecting, thoughtful poems that work hard to interrogate themselves even as they interrogate you.”—Winnipeg Free Press
Moez Surani’s writing has been published internationally, including in Harper’s Magazine, The Awl, Best American Experimental Writing 2016, Best Canadian Poetry (2013 and 2014), and the Globe and Mail. He has received a Chalmers Arts Fellowship, which supported research in India and East Africa, and has been an Artist in Residence in Burma, Finland, Italy, Latvia, Taiwan, Switzerland, as well as the Banff Centre for the Arts. He is the author of three poetry books: Reticent Bodies (2009), Floating Life (2012), and Operations (2016), which comprises the names of military operations and reveals a globe-spanning inventory of the contemporary rhetoric of violence. Surani lives in Toronto.
Trevor Corkum: Are the Rivers in Your Poems Real is your fourth collection of poetry. What did you learn through the writing of this new work?
Moez Surani: That beauty, meaning, tension, and curiosity are in specifics: specific moments of time, contexts, decisions, places—even shapes.
An example of this is a poem titled “Happiness.” It isn’t prescriptive, or generalizing approach to happiness, but it does offer a pathway: it’s a list of eight phone numbers. One October a couple of years ago, I realized I had been feeling so good, and, after thinking about it, I realized it was because of eight people. Their numbers are there for the brave and willing: they’ve each had interesting lives and are candid. And like language, these numbers too will eventually age out.
Another example is the poem “Best Decisions of My Life So far”: the four decisions listed are sincere. In my first two books the kind of reader I wanted was one who could have intense relationship with the text of poems I was carefully writing. Now, more like a kitchen table, poems like "Happiness" and "Best Decisions" aim to provoke conversations and intimacy. These conversations are, to me, the true poem, the untraceable subtexts, and the text of poem recedes.
The book’s title poem, "Are the Rivers in Your Poems Real," works through these thoughts and weighs what we lose when we generalize or are abstract.
TC: One of the themes that concerns you as a writer is sentimentality, or the way in which sentimentality can co-opt and be co-opted. I’m thinking of the poem “Lullaby for a Waning Empire,” which opens with the killer line “That our epoch is sad is something we should not concede to” and goes on, later, to speak of “A new art, lithe and present, of infinite depth,/an ocean above a highway.” What are the dangers of sentimentality and how do you see it operating in our current historical moment?
MS: Sentimentality can lead to uncritical adoption of contemporary narratives and mores. I find patriotism is often sentimental, and can lead to an uncritical notion of one’s country. The sentimental then is a weak form of belonging, and a perhaps dissociated form of belonging if one reckons with a country’s power dynamics and how these impact those around you.
I often use lists to try to speak through existing narratives. A poem like "The Backburner" is an example of this. Instead of generalizing an ideology of the New York Times (that purports to be the record of the day), there is the actual list of people, rights, and events that the NYT has ascribed as being on the backburner. Patterns emerge, and an ideology can be inferred.
TC: Another favourite poem of mine is “Meanwhile the Sky,” in which the speaker asks, “Is love simply chasing after another’s full and elusive truth?”. Love—both is infinite mystery and very material complications—is under the surface of so many of these poems. Where does the pursuit of this “full and elusive truth” lead us?
MS: Into openness, into chance, into the void. The void isn’t a vacuum to be avoided but a generative place that yields richness, surprises, spontaneity, and difference. With the question that poem asks, I am on the side of love being a path to understanding someone, (rather than understanding coming prior to and enabling love). I’m fine with unknowns and incomplete knowledge.
TC: Apart from poetry—and other writing—you’re a visual artist. In what ways do your various artistic pursuits intersect and inform one another?
MS: The art piece Heresies, which Nina Leo and I collaborated on, grew directly out of the research I was doing on my previous book Operations. During the research of Operations, I was reading a lot about names, the function of these names, and I met Nina one night and we were talking about city names that carry a stigma, such as Baghdad or Hiroshima. We started wondering if it was possible to invoke those cities without using their names. Since scents are processed through our personal experiences rather than through the linguistic portion of our brain we thought scent could work. So we contacted a perfumer in Hiroshima, Kayo Yoneda, and asked if she could design a scent that represented her Hiroshima—instead of the objective city that has a role in political icongraphy. We gave her full latitude to design the scent. It didn’t have to smell beautiful or alluring. Rather, we asked her to approach it as a lyric poem that expresses a single life in a particular time and place. One way to think of these scents are as olfactory poems.
We’re at work on other pieces that build on this piece. Like much of my poetry, the work Nina and I are developing occurs at the crossroads of the senses and contemporary politics. We’ll be exhibiting new work in 2021, from January to March at YYZ Artists’ Outlet in Toronto.
The custom scent, My Hiroshima, from Heresies, a collaboration with Nina Leo. Heresies was part of the Sunshine Eaters Exhibition at the Onsite Gallery, Toronto, 2018. Photo credit: Yuula Benivolski.
TC: You also have taken part in more artist and writing residencies than any other writer I know. What is it about travel—and time in residency abroad—that fuels and inspires you?
MS: When I finished school I had spent almost my whole life in Canada—and not even across the full country, but along a small strip of highway between Toronto and Montreal. So when I graduated I was restless to see more of the world, and try life in different cultures and routines.
With residencies, the immersion and the intensity of conversations are helpful, as is the distance from your own life. More than anything though, it’s fun and exciting to live in a place you don’t know, with people you don’t know much either and you can all venture out and discover things together.
MEANWHILE THE SKY
Lyrical souls who like to preach the abolition of secrets and the transparency
of private life do not realize the nature of the process they are unleashing.
Love must decay when two can lie together silently,
moving from thought to thought.
When we aren’t lured by mystery we’ll seek it in others.
And as I verified this thought, weighing it on a Sunday afternoon,
and going through my life and being honest about times
I withheld or let the occasion for an interested question pass,
I lay there wondering if this was something amusing or something of
Is love simply a chasing after another’s full and elusive truth?
Wasn’t that your summertime worry with me? That I could feel without
And measuring the worth of mystery, and how it would be to know
you pointed at the ceiling with your usual grace. My eyes followed,
bringing my mind from this island-hopping, this obsessive archipelago
where, you tell me, I’m alone
and your lips primped themselves for speech,
your eyelids finally opened too and your eyes
adjusted to the wham of light and, pointing to a precise spot of ceiling,
your lips parted and whispered, Airplane.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
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