Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Suspicious Mind: An Interview with Moez Surani

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Suspicious Mind: An Interview with Moez Surani

By Alessandro Porco

Moez Surani's debut collection of poems, Reticent Bodies (Wolsak & Wynn), will be launched in Toronto on September 30th at Ben McNally Books. See Open Book's events page for details.

Alessandro Porco:

Your first collection of poems, Reticent Bodies (Wolsak and Wynn, 2009), seems to have embedded in it a healthy suspicion of — and to a certain degree, critique of — the “lyric” poem, and this is right from the get-go: “no lyric ease of sound / such luxury,” you write in the book’s first poem, “The Captain’s Garden.” A few pages later, in response to the interior-based “solitude” and “immersion” of Rilke, you suggest “This is no way to live.” (In contrast, you admire the physicality and daring of “suicidal acrobats” rehearsing in the rain.) Where does this suspicion come from and how does it relate to “reticence”?

Moez Surani:

Some of the rhetoric, the lexicon or postures used, the tropes or cadences or metaphors that are chosen in a lyric are worn. They’re inherited and don’t for me capture the time and place we’re in. So in the “Captain’s Garden” the suspicion is of poems that sound beautiful. That are tranquil or soothing to the ear – this comes at the expense of thought that is more situated in our time. The Neruda epigraph relates to this. It is his discarding of the “poppy petalled metaphysics,” his realization that that kind of language isn’t suited to the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and what he’s been through that leads him to write “I’m Explaining a Few Things”— it’s a beautiful poem — with restraint. And regarding Rilke, that to me is a lyric posture — it’s a fantasy. Because I have that tendency too, towards embellishments, reticence became a check on that type of imagery or figuration and a way to remain true.


You seem especially concerned, then, with the relation between poetry and life (“a way to remain true”). For example, in the poem “Yardsaling with Robin,” you worry about “how / careful aesthetics / can mar these / elations”— with the “careful aesthetics” of the art object standing in contrast with the exciting obsolescence of “yardsale” materials. Or, in “Sunday Morning,” you note how we are more likely to gravitate towards the “half-truth” imagery of “sunlight” rather than the fact of a “monsoon.” Can you talk a little more about this, and perhaps how it comes out of your indebtedness to W.C. Williams?


I don’t know how to represent life. So with each poem I try a slightly different way, sometimes relying on tone or rhythm, sometimes on techniques like enjambment, or on ironies between these elements. There aren’t a lot of proposition type phrases in this book— those kinds of solid declarations that can give the illusion of definiteness. Imagery is more useful: a passing moment can be rendered more holistically with an image rather than statements. And regarding Williams, there is something subversive to how he abandons concepts and conceits and goes headlong into the presentation of the life around him and his perceptions. Williams — and the ideals of the Imagists — is crucial to this communication through images. As is Matsuo Basho who comes up later in the book. Basho can render the cosmos in a three-line image. Williams makes me want to get married and eat cold plums. What you’ve brought up though is important: I want to depict life but keep seeing my own fallibility.


Okay, Moez, I have a two-part follow-up to your answer (and each part isn’t necessarily related to the other but I want to make sure I get these questions out). First, with regard to this “communication through images”— I take your use of “images” to mean or include the entire sensorium not just sight (e.g. in “‘A Quiet Man,’” there’s the “shrieking lamp”). Would you agree? Second, you write, “a passing moment can be rendered more holistically with an image rather than statements” (emphases mine). Okay, how does this “holism” / anti-statement (or anti-prose) jive with the fact that you dub a section of the book “Fictions.” Talk about the implication of dubbing the section’s two long-poems as “fictions” (that word obviously carries a lot of baggage).


I agree with that. Sound is important. “Ally Dolle,” one of the poems in that second section that you’ve brought up, Fictions, is built on the back of the blues. Sound can undermine or stabilize an image, but one way or another it colours it. The second part of your question is trickier. I think it’s tied to what happens later in the book, with a poem like “Guy de Maupassant”— like “Ally Dolle,” another poem that’s more dramatic monologue than lyric. So I think titling that section Fictions is a cue to how it should be read. There’s a bit of a narrative in those ones; they’re more public. It’s difficult to say which is more holistic: a lyric of a confined moment or a longer, more sustained depiction of a relationship or psychology. A judgment like that is probably better left to a reader or someone like you.


Shifting gears, I was wondering if you could address what people might dub your more explicitly “political” poems — I am thinking, in particular, of “Realpolitik” and “-The Last Poem / I Can Remember With Any-,” which are, it’s worth noting, in a section titled “Poems Against England.” Could you talk about these poems? What does it means to be a “political” poet (without resorting to the “well, aren’t all poets are political?” answer that’s all too common when such a question is posed)? It’s a tag you’re willing to take on, I think, given that you chose to appear in the anthology 100 Poets Against the War.


I think it’s a useful distinction you make between poems that are explicitly political and poems that implicate a lifestyle that can be politicized. A political poet is someone who, for the duration of a poem, is willing it to be all in on a particular cause. This is in contrast to an activist, which is more of a lifestyle decision; activists may sympathize with one poem or another while still remaining critical of or even resenting aspects of the poet’s lifestyle. I think poets need to be wary of the dogmas or pieties that probably comfort an activist when things get difficult. I admire activists; it’s noble. They’re the ones who see these needed changes through. And when I read or hear people disparaging some of these activists or their initiatives for what reads like an accusation of not being adequately polished or professional, I feel like these critics, somewhere along the lines, have lost a piece of their humanity. Politics is primal. When you hear someone talking about inequities or injustices — you can intellectualize it or cultivate a cool speaking style — but there’s a rawness there. A political poem or piece of art touches that wick in a unique way. It’s one of those all-time great symbols that in the run-up to the Iraq invasion the US officials pressured people at the UN to put a blue curtain over Guernica. Think of how threatened they were by this 60-year-old piece of art that the administration opted to concede the poor symbolism of concealing it rather than going face to face with it. When you hear him talk, you can tell that the whole thing still burns Colin Powell. That symbol is so potent; it cant be true, can it? It’s like out of a Kundera novel.


Keeping with the political (as opposed to the activist), my favourite poem in the collection is “The Dissemblers.” It describes a trip your mother and sister make to India and what ensues is very much like a farce — and as with any farce, mistaken identity is involved. Here’s the poem below:

2001. My mother and sister
travelling India together
gain reduced museum admission
by passing as citizens.

A guard stops them
And asks who the Prime Minister is.
Vajpayee! my sister answers.
And the Finance Minister?

Vajpayee, my mother tells him.
Name anyone in local politics.
The three of them laughing now.
Vajpayee, she insists.

On the one hand, that laughter seems like a form of relief; on the other hand, there’s something ominous or alarming signaled by that laugh. The poem, in particular, is about identity but I think “dissembling” is a larger issue in the book. Could you talk about this poem and its relation to the rest of the collection, maybe?


I guess people often find themselves in roles they struggle with — or maybe not roles, maybe it’s more that they have trouble being consistent for people around them. Just looking back over poems we’ve already brought up, Neruda comes home from Spain and doesn’t want to be lush and romantic for his wife; Guy de Maupassant, in the company of Flaubert, feels as though he becomes Boswell; in “Realpolitik,” the speaker chooses the domestic as a way to keep political realities from bothering him. This poem you’ve brought up seems to be the happy flipside to this: emigrants come home and find that the door’s locked.


I’d like to broaden out the discussion here. You’ve lived and studied writing in Kingston and Montreal, while also spending time in Russia and in Africa. I was wondering if you could talk generally about your interest in travel but also how it related to the composition process of the book (e.g. the first section of the book is titled “Kingston Poems”).


I’ve been lucky to go on a few trips. I like walking around in a different city. I’m interested in atmospheres so, in terms of writing, the atmosphere of the place I’m in influences the writing. There’s a poem that was a bit too recent for this book, “Cairo.” The content of the poem isn’t true to the city; the fidelity is in the atmosphere. Kingston Poems, that first section of the book, grew out of the atmosphere of my undergrad experience there. Many of the poems in Poems Against England, the third section, came from my graduate experience in Montreal. I don’t think I can generalize about the composition process: the givens — a writer, taking some time by him or herself — are of course the same and the elements that are different — the atmosphere of the place or room you’re in, you’re mood and immediate influences and circumstances — don’t repeat themselves. The act of composition is unique with each poem. In terms of the composition of the book, it’s arranged chronologically. This seemed like the best way to let the echoes or counterpoints or themes exist without being apparent. I think they’re cloaked in the personality that develops. The problem with this arrangement though is that it creates a narrative where something that is said later in the book could be read as repudiating what comes earlier.


That something earlier in a book may be in conflict with something later isn’t necessarily a problem; more like a felicity, I think — a felicity that is in sync with living. I’d like to end with this question: in “Small Poem,” you suggest how the little things (a touch, a gesture, a “small poem”) can create “intimacy” between alienated citizens. Is that what you imagine the function of poetry to be? Do you hope Reticent Bodies has that impact? And do you risk having the “small” thing veer into triviality?


It could also be the other way around. If someone calls something “Small Poem” it may mean that they feel the poems around that one are quite large. “Small Poem” is between “Realpolitik,” a protest poem, and “Country of the Blue,” which seems to be the fulcrum of the book. That isn’t a worthy goal to me, where art is a mediator between a couple of alienated citizens. It sounds like a movie where two people meet in front of a Rothko painting, go out for coffee and fall in love. It has to be about more than breaking the ice. Their alienation could still exist — but it’s an island of two now instead of one. Poetry has many uses. I don’t think I’m capable of taxonomizing all of them. One use that’s related to this example is art that triggers a sustained openness. That’s a worthy goal. I could go on about why I think this openness is important or what’s at stake but I think people know why. In terms of Reticent Bodies, there are many things I hope the book can do. In general, I look at poetry books as being in dialogue with another and with the world and culture around them so I hope people think about it and find it to be a worthy addition to those discussions.

Alessandro Porco is the author of Augustine in Carthage, and Other Poems (2008) and The Jill Kelly Poems (2005), both published by ECW Press. Currently, at the State University of New York at Buffalo, he is writing a dissertation on hip-hop poetics and American poetry. He writes a hip-hop column, “In Extremis,” for Maisonneuve Magazine online (
Moez Surani's poetry and short fiction have been published widely in Canada. He has served as a writer-in-residence for the Toronto Catholic District School Board and curator for the Strong Words Reading Series. Among his awards is a 2008 Chalmers Arts Fellowship, which supported a research stint to India and East Africa. His debut collection of poems, Reticent Bodies, will be launched in Toronto on September 30th at Ben McNally Books.

Read more about Reticent Bodies at the Wolsak & Wynn website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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