An interview with Phinder Dulai
In one of my earliest posts here at Harriet (on the conference celebrating the retirement of poet, editor, and Japanese-Canadian internment activist Roy Miki, “Tracing the Lines”) I mentioned being introduced by my transnational roommate, Jeff Derksen, to Phinder Dulai and his work. Since May, I’ve had a chance to read both of Phinder’s superb poetry books, Ragas from the Periphery and Basmati Brown: Paths, Passages, Cross and Open (as well as recommend them to several USAmerican readers). Below is part of an online Q&A we’ve been engaged in the past few weeks. Enjoy!
Mark: In your first book, Ragas from the Periphery, you include several poems—such as “The Booth” and “I Work On Your Holy Days”—that directly engage issues of race, labor, and socio-economics in the service sector in direct and unique ways. Can you tell us a bit about these poems and why you felt it necessary to include them in your first collection?
Phinder: I wrote Ragas while working as a parking lot attendant. In fact the whole Ms. was written during my late evening shifts. During that time I attended university in Vancouver and was part of an ad hoc network of culturally diverse writers interested in advocating around themes and issues of race, identity and class and the lack of inclusion in Canada’s literary, publishing and poetry circles. My friend Sadhu Binning introduced me to his work poetry about his life as a Canada Post employee and introduced me to a larger body of work around this emergent genre. What I read adhered to a communal value of how work contributes to the notion of a healthy self and society. But something important was missing for me in that emergent genre that I felt directly linked to the type of work one did, to one’s race, class and ethnicity. In some ways I felt a kind of co-opting force that would structurally bleach out the space of racialized poetics if I adhered to a pure aesthetic. I began working on a series of poems that placed the subject not within the communal ideal but within the broader power structure and industrial architecture of work; and I wrote about my condition. What I learned from writing Ragas is an emergent poetic around migrancy as a metaphor for a post modern life. As a parallel to that creative process was learning to become a critical thinker. One of the more prescient critical works I was interested in was a translation of the Mikhail Bakhtin’s four essays contained in Michael Holquist and Caryl Emerson’s book The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin. In some ways, working in small quarters (a parking lot booth) allowed me to write a parallel world of poetic constriction where the immigrant is not rendered as a human, but as part of a industrial asset, so in the poem "The Booth," I employ the normalized tonality of technical language in listing off the various assets of the booth and then morph the list without losing the tone of that language to make a statement about the placement of the living asset(s). As I write and describe this, I see that the reality of the migrant and the poetry of that reality has not lost relevance in 2008; and more than ever, I think that these themes are even greater in context to the global industrial complex and world we live in.
Mark: The service-sector theme continues in your second collection, Basmati Brown: Paths, Passages, Cross and Open. How would you relate what you state in the introduction to be your larger theme, “Exile,” to a poem like “Dishwasher”?
Phinder: Exile for me speaks to multiple real and imagined spaces with this notion of searching for a way to find home or create home. My work as a poet is to mine them and render them in a broader meta-narrative of how migrancy plays out as part of a human architecture that codifies and articulates prescribed real and societal spaces in which people can settle, live and create notions of home. The blood narrative of my family (I am Punjabi by ethnicity, and my family come from a Sikh faith background) is one that does not begin with some stamp of landing in a new land or a citizenship test. It has a meta-history that links in with other threads, other locales and many submerged themes and motivations for how a family moves over four continents to find a sense of home in one generation. In “Dishwasher,” I create a space in which the reader is provided a perspective of seeing and understanding how a service sector job codifies one into silence; even in the midst of knowing the arbitrarily imposed code, the employee will not speak beyond what is the employment role. I think many are familiar with this idea and probably have seen it and are awkward about even speaking about it. In this context one is exiled from one’s self, the temporary community of employees there in that moment, and exiled from those words that probably many North Americans view as a given.
Mark: The poem “canadian, eh!, or depends on who you ask!” interrogates notions of citizenship, the nation/national, classed travel, eyes that “never saw colour again…” Can you speak to how some of these themes arrive at, develop, morph, and sometimes disappear in your poetic practice? Are they still there in the newer work that you’ve been writing since Basmati Brown came out in 2000? And if so, how has your (poetic) relationship to them changed (if it has)?
Phinder: What I hoped to build through the inner architecture of the poem (Canadian eh!) was to narrow the negative space between the two stories of migration and build a kind of parallel inference: one from Great Britain circa 1965 and India circa 1970. I did this by pulling out the archetypical elements of childhood and young adulthood and anchor them on common threads of human experience and ensuring the vernacular was as common as my experience growing up, through the description of the two generic immigrants in a post WW II world. The aim was to distill the irony that exposed what was a massive gap and unreality of how certain immigrants arrive, settle and grow into a space of home and community, while others spend most of their lives shape shifting into norms that are at best temporary, transitory and provisional, and designed not to inspire acceptance or part of a community, but may seem “normalized.” As a working poet, I try to contain my praxis within the realm of my engagement of, through and within the world I live in; and, in some ways that requires the kind of parallel poetic world that allows for disruption of language, abrupt changes in tone and language, and an obsessive interest in creating a reading experience that is as uncomfortable in the world on the page, as it is the real world that I live in. These approaches continue in the Ms. I have been working on over the years, called Dereliction and Other Poems, and many of the poems indirectly link to the themes linked to marginal spaces.
Mark: Your work quite uniquely mixes more traditional, direct lyricism and lyric observation with linguistic experimentation, code-switching, multiple languages (English, Punjabi). Poems like “Soil of Excess (Tabla Poem)” and “between a sikh temple and the ywca” press these devices in, to me, quite powerful ways. How did this melding of direct lyricism and linguistic experimentation first develop in your work? And what has been the reaction to it in a literary world that often divides precisely into opposite encampments over formal issues such as these?
Phinder: I recall how important it was to perform the “Soil of Excess” poem with Tabla accompaniment; that would enhance the tonal utterances of my word constructions. I recall the lyrical always present in my father’s songs sung at family gatherings which were musical renditions of poems written first. The lyrical has always been part of my learning from studying the British Romantics through to the diffusion of the lyrical in the multifarious musings from modernist poets such as T S Eliot. The approach I have taken and threaded into the work comes from Canada’s west coast poetry communities, and specifically from two life spaces: in the English language, I am and have been inspired by the textual dynamics of writers such as George Bowering, Jeff Derksen, Larissa Lai, Ashok Mathur, Michael Turner and Rita Wong. In the Punjabi language, where the lyrical grows from the roots of the farms that are part of the original landscape of the “homeland,” there is a deep commitment to the lyrical and spiritual, and for the community of writers that grew up with a heavy dose of Indian Socialist Secularism, the lyrical is ever present in their social realism: Sadhu Binning, Ajmer Rode and others come to mind and two South Asian journals on the west coast in the past 15 years: Rungh and Ankur. I see myself not as a purist but really a mongrelized self that continues to learn and thread diverse poetics into the subject and poetics I create; that is a result of growing up in a British post modernist and blighted urban landscape during the 1960s and 70s where many Indian and Carribbean immigrants settled and worked; and it was also the formative years in which writers such as Salman Rushdie began their initial forays into language experimentation, bilingual trope design and magic realism; as well as beginning from activist roots. Growing up in different places and nation states, I find myself collecting the debris of my past and piecing things together to create a semblance of normal. In terms of how the literary world responds; that is complex, just as I am finding that sometimes there are those who support your work, and there are those who would not be too disappointed if my work were to be forgotten or erased out any formal canonical space. I have to admit the diffusion of various forms inspires critical inquiry in the poetry communities I work in. I am also quite comfortable with defending my mongrelized aesthetic. I have been told that my books inspire heated discussions around race and class, in college and university courses; I think that is a good thing.
Mark Nowak is the author of Revenants, Shut Up Shut Down (afterword by Amiri Baraka), and Coal Mountain Elementary (2009), all from Coffee House Press. His writings on new labor poetics have recently appeared in The Progressive, Virginia Quarterly Review, American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics (Wesleyan...