To Reach Each Other With Love: Rob Taylor interviews Shazia Hafiz Ramji
I didn’t tell you of the hands
that led the Internet cable
into the sea,
that they were brown
or that I was thinking
of rows of royal blue binders
in a hospital in Afghanistan:
records of amputations
from drone strikes.
I saw all this on TV,
as in, my laptop: torrents, Netflix.
It doesn’t make sense to ask
if words will ever stop failing me
but I want to ask it. What does it take
for a three-year-old who lived on M&Ms
and barely escaped the Gulf War
to call the first part of her life
I didn’t tell you
because I still don’t believe it.
In Toronto, I read a poem
about another part of my life,
one I still find hard to believe
when I’m not with myself.
A stranger asked me afterwards,
“Are you really clean,
though?” I was.
I couldn’t believe his guts, but I did
because I smiled and nodded
as if I’d just signed him a cheque. Then
I cupped my phone with both hands
and bowed my head, as if to say,
someone is calling me
and I have to go,
as if in fear,
as if in thanks.
from Port of Being
(Invisible Publishing, 2018).
Reprinted with permission.
Shazia Hafiz Ramji’s is the author of Port of Being, a finalist for the 2019 Vancouver Book Award, BC Book Prizes (Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize), Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and winner of the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. She is a columnist for Open Book and is at work on a novel. Her poetry will appear in a forthcoming issue of EVENT.
Rob Taylor: You note at the back ofPort of Being that the book “began” when a thief stole your phone and laptop from your East Vancouver home and subsequently began stalking you. What an awful experience that must have been. It’s not surprising, then, that Port of Being focuses as it does on the theme of surveillance. Could you talk a little about how the stalking event led to the book?
Shazia Hafiz Ramji: This will sound odd, but I wasn’t aware of how being stalked had affected me until after I finished writing the book. I had a fascination with surveillance before being stalked, but afterwards it became more obsessive. I became attuned to all the ways that we are made visible and invisible. My hypervigilance was one way of dealing with trauma I hadn’t yet admitted or articulated to myself, but it was also intertwined with that stillness of poetic attention that is necessary for writing.
RT: Isn’t that so often the case – that we write the book to understand the book and, through it, ourselves? What role do you think all this played in sharpening Port of Being’s focus on ports, and the Port of Vancouver especially?
SHR: Ports are places where visibility and invisibility are crucial. I couldn’t help but notice the opacity of containers, the supposed transparency and clarity of water, the Internet in the sea (huge cables under the sand!), and all the other ways that our lives are shaped by the ocean. Ports have always been places of arrival and departure, places of transience, the sense of which still feels resonant and true to my life.
Even though I’m privileged to call Vancouver my home, it is so difficult to live in this city. It breaks my heart every single day because it’s not easy to live and write here. Many of my friends left for places like Montreal, where living costs are more affordable. To be honest, I don’t know if I could have written about anything else at that time in my life, aside from surveillance and ports!
RT: Ha – some books do feel inevitable in hindsight, it’s true. While Port of Being is your first book, you’d been a writer for many years when the stalking event happened (we’ve known each other, as poets, since – what – 2006?). Did you set aside your previous work to write Port of Being? Or did that new “hypervigilance” dovetail nicely into what you were already writing? Were the themes of Port of Being major departures from what you were writing before? What you’ve been writing since?
SHR: Do you know you were one of the first people who brought me into poetry world? It all happened at SFU through the High Altitude Poetry club, which you ran and which I took on after you! I was so depressed and lonely during my undergrad years and I can’t tell you how much of a relief poetry club was.
I had published my first chapbook, Prosopopoeia, a year before Port of Being was published. Writing the chapbook allowed me to see the themes I was drawn to. At the time of the chapbook, the themes were relationships, depression, addiction, and technology (our various online personas and the voices of non-human things; cyborg ways of being!). I think Port of Being was a deep dive into those themes.
Trump got elected while I was in the middle of writing Port of Being. This was very disillusioning. I remember feeling a strong and sudden need to write clearly and directly, to transform my love for theory and philosophy and research in order to speak and write in a way that is more accessible, because frankly I think we all need to be able to reach each other with love. So I made that decision halfway, which likely accounts for the more intimate lyric poems.
I made a breakthrough at the end of the book, especially when I decided to make “Astronaut Family” (which is dedicated to all my friends who left Vancouver because they could no longer afford to live here) the book’s closing poem. Now I’m writing about intimate things: home, family, friends, and (unfortunately or fortunately)… ports.
A few months after publication, it struck me that my ancestors have all lived in port cities or islands as far as I know. My love for all things ports continues to grow, but this time I’m finding a way into the poems through family and my home, Vancouver.
RT: I didn’t know we’d been your introduction to poetry – yeesh, it’s nice to hear things like that, Shazia. High Altitude, established by Stephen Buckley in the early 2000s, brought me into the poetry world, too, a few years before you. I’m so glad I was able to keep the club around long enough to bring you into the fold. (Recruit you into the cult?)
You talked about finding your way into poems through the city of Vancouver. The city appears to have been central in your writing in Port of Being: while many of its ideas transcend any one locale, every observation in the book seems to be drawn from, or seen through, Vancouver. Do you think you could have written this book if you lived somewhere other than Vancouver? Would any port city – say, those of your ancestors – have given you what you needed?
SHR: What a difficult question, Mr. Robert! All port cities can be ciphers for each other in some way, because of the nature of ports, but I think that my life is very deeply intertwined with the life of Vancouver and the people in it. I always think of leaving because it’s such a struggle to live comfortably here (I have no time to relax and just live). But when I go elsewhere and am on the plane coming back, seeing Vancouver from a distance makes me feel so relieved to be returning. Vancouver has people like you in it! Where would I be if it weren’t for that!? It is my home and I truly hope I won’t have to leave.
RT: Ha! Yes, and people like you keep me here. One of us really needs to make the first move and go somewhere affordable. (Though for me, too, the reality is that such a move from my hometown is ultimately unimaginable, no matter how financially ruinous that proves to be.)
We talked before about our meeting in university, but I’m curious about your interest in poetry before that. With the name “Hafiz,” I suspect your parents played a role, but perhaps not? What role do you think poetry has played in getting you to the place in your life where you are now?
SHR: I don’t think my parents knew what they were getting into with me! A poet in a poor immigrant family is hellish for all involved.
Hafiz is a popular name in Persian and South Asian and Muslim cultures, as I know you know from the infamy of Hafiz/Hafez the big poet. I was named by my grandparents as “Shazia Hafiz,” which is my full first name actually (but I go by Shazia in conversation). The grampy and grammy must’ve known what was coming more than my parents did! Though, they were initially going to name me “Sasha.” I don’t know why… or I don’t think I’m ready to find out!
My dad used to sing ghazals when I was young – on tape, every day! At the time I really disliked them. To my little kid ears, they sounded so sad and slow. They stopped me from living in my fantasies of becoming an explorer when I grew up. My dad also used to tell me stories at bedtime. We all used to sleep in the same room, because our house was small and because the Gulf War situation scared the crap out of us. I would not be able to sleep if he didn’t tell me a story!
I also remember reading voraciously. My parents would take me to the bookshop and the owner would let me exchange the book for one on the shelf (without ringing it through), because he knew my parents were broke and that we’d be back in no time.
I don’t think I legitimately knew what a poet or a writer was until I was into my teens, but I remember writing constantly when I was young. I would sit in front of the TV and watch snakes and other creatures on National Geographic, and I remember feeling awed by so much beauty! And that’s when I would pick up a notebook and write “a poem,” which was just descriptions of deserts and oceans and cool stuff on National Geographic.
I still watch Blue Planet and Planet Earth to get into the writing zone. Wonder and awe return me to a good place.
RT: I love that story of the bookstore owner. And “deserts and oceans and cool stuff” – yes! Port of Being, too, roams widely. Its sections feel like distinct chapbooks: each involves distinct compositional techniques, which lead to poems which look and sound very different from those in the preceding section (some lyrical, some experimental, some univocal, some polyvocal, etc.). Did the book involve gathering multiple “parts” together to form the whole, or did one mini-project flow out of another in a more linear way?
SHR: Fascinating! A chunk of my writing process was built on research. So the more modular poems of a section like “Surveiller” were attentive to the forms of the technology I was thinking about (like the Internet and it’s assemblage of parts, where each part can function as a separate entity but together they are this emergent force… For example: a neighbourhood camera is one part of a chain in a network). The more impressionistic poems of the first section, “Container,” were written while walking and hanging out by the port!
Chronologically, the poems in the “Spooky Actors at a Distance” came first. Some of these poems were in my chapbook. I was very taken by the chorus of voices of human and non-human things around and in the ocean, so these poems are strange and uncanny as they shift perspective, alternating between “I,” “you,” and “we” to voice themselves.
RT: Let’s talk more about “Spooky Actors at a Distance.” That section feels like its about orbiting (one poem is even called “Orbiter”): how on social media we are always close to everything, but we can never actually touch it (as you say in “Inquest,” “We can only talk around her death”). That section is followed by the title section, “Port of Being,” which is made up of lyrical, confessional poems (i.e. the stuff that fills up all of many writers debut collections!). (A side note, but of interest to me: that section, the one most about “you,” is the only one in the book that doesn’t open with an epigraph.)
In reading “Spooky Actors” and “Port of Being” back-to-back, I can’t help but draw connections between social media and the confessional lyric: both create an intimacy that is ultimately, if not false, at least limited. And yet those confessional poems are still in there, they are still an important part of the whole you are making in the book. Could you speak a bit about the relationship between the more experimental and lyrical sections of the book?
SHR: I love that you said the poems in “Spooky Actors at a Distance” are about orbiting. It feels like a very apt description. As I mentioned, some of those poems are in Prosopopoeia. That sputtering word refers to a technique of personification and a trope of autobiography that gives voice to objects and people (essentially, a mask). I was thinking about the ways intimacy and relationships have changed, and the new words and forms that are given to name them. How could we give voice to our new cyborg selves? To “voice” these selves, I had to circle around objects and subjects, accruing bits of their lives to create their voice. This seemed like the only way in, since it felt like a huge transgression to inhabit and speak “as” something or somebody.
About the section title, “Port of Being,” all I can say is: oh shit, busted! In a way, I think I’d been working towards this more confessional and lyric section from the beginning, though I didn’t know it. It may have begun in my chapbook. Prosopopoeia is a title I stole from a Norwegian movie called Reprise,directed by Joachim Trier. One of my all-time favourite movies. In the movie, a character publishes a novel titled Prosopopoeia. I think the movie captures the frustration writers feel regarding autobiography. This felt very true for me at the time. I still struggle with it. The confessional mode comes very naturally to me, but at the same time, it can create problems in real life.
Port of Being was the first time my parents found out about the extent of my addiction. I am very lucky that they accepted me and continue to love me. In a strange way, that book has allowed me to feel more at ease in the world because it loosened some secrets (especially the addiction-related ones) and trauma.
RT: I like the sense there of one mode of writing propelling you, in some way, into another. And then all the good that came from that process. One of the confessional poems in the book’s last section, “Conspiracy of Love,” was selected for inclusion in Best Canadian Poetry 2019 (which, full disclosure, I edited!). In your biographical note at the back of Best Canadian Poetry, you write that the poem was in part inspired by Anne Michaels’ collection All We Saw. You write that that book’s poems “brim with conviction and belief – not so much belief by choice but out of necessity.” Could you unpack that sentence for us a bit – both what All We Saw meant to you and how it shaped the poems in Port of Being?
SHR: I can’t articulate how surprised and happy I was to see that you anthologized “Conspiracy of Love.” I think that there is a leap of faith every writer takes when they write. This poem is definitely a leap of faith because it was written during an extremely dark time for me.
In Anne Michaels’ All We Saw, I felt this leap of faith in every single poem. I don’t think I can explain it, but I reviewed the book and Anne herself reached out to say thank you, and that the poems had been deeply understood and “found their peace.” That is what a leap of faith can do.