"Incidental Things": An Interview with Moez Surani
Tuesday, May 1st at 7:00 p.m., at the Magpie Taproom (831 Dundas St. West), Moez Surani is launching his new collection of poetry, Floating Life, alongside fellow Wolsak & Wynn authors Oana Avasilichioaei (We, Beasts) and Catherine Owen (Catalysts: Confrontations with the muse). I conducted an interview with Surani about his new book. Enjoy!
I think the best place to start this interview is with the title of your new collection of poetry, Floating Life. The book’s travel poems, of course, are an obvious example of a groundlessness connected to wander and wonder. The feeling of new love is ecstasy, as if one is floating above the fray of everyday life. Yet floating also suggests, perhaps, a disengagement of sorts. Could you speak to some of the thematic and formal significances of the title— how do you intend the title to frame your poems?
These last four years or so, which is when these poems are from, there was a lot of uncertainty in my life. I didn’t know where money would come from. I didn’t know what the next half year would bring or where I would be. I was going along with my eyes closed and saying yes to whatever came my way. This way of living— more than being far from Canada— is what makes the title true for me. I’m relying on chance, but also want to keep my chin up. The quote from Asai Ryoi’s Tales of the Floating World that leads off this collection encapsulates it:
"Living only for the moment, turning our attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maples, singing songs, drinking wine, and diverting ourselves in just floating, floating, caring not a whit for the poverty staring us in the face, refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current . . ."
Or as you put it wander and wonder. It’s a book of pleasures: friendships, love, new experiences and the darker emotions that come with these. It is disengaged from some things, most obviously there are no overt political poems, but it’s not possible to be completely disengaged. I left one way and found myself on another. The title, Floating Life, is the book’s state of mind.
Ok, well, I have a couple follow up comments and questions. First, I guess I wonder about risk, i.e., on the one hand, this “state of mind” you describe risks sounding like overly sentimental capital ‘P’ / capital ‘H’ Poet Hokum. On the other hand, there’s something endearingly— and dangerously— idealistic about your “other way.” I think, in fact, that tension plays out in the book as a whole. Second, what about the formal manifestation of “floating”— which you skirted? It seems to me that, formally, one of the advances of Floating Life from Reticent Bodies (W&W, 2009) is that the poems all feel like moveable pieces of a whole rather than discrete things. Is that compositionally, structurally, or philosophically accurate?
When I was writing them, the poems came one by one, without an overarching conceit in mind. They’ve been published one by one in journals and magazines too— only a couple of times as a longer series— so these poems have stood alone. But since they belong together in terms of style and feel, I grouped them together for this book.
I think those couple questions you have though, about the book’s form and how the poems seem like they could be shuffled around, are related. These poems rely heavily on imagery and on white space. Both of these things create an airiness— an airiness that comes from the withheld information and minimalism, but also from the playfulness and the book’s faint rhythms that don’t peg the images to any sure ground. It’s also less allusive than Reticent Bodies and the context is often less apparent. Because of all these things, they seem to float, the context for a poem becomes the poems surrounding it in the book and it feels like they could bob around into other arrangements. This shuffling, though, would probably influence the subtexts and the perception of the tone and the subconscious patterns so I did what I did with Reticent Bodies and arranged it chronologically.
The “airiness” you describe coincides with the book’s philosophical emphasis on what’s referred to in “Astrophel and Stella” as the “incidental things”— and I think that’s the crux of the book. “Incidental” is an interesting term: it can refer to that which is “in fortuitous or subordinate conjunction with something else of which it forms no essential part; casual”— thus, it depends upon a willingness to be “exposed”; or it’s like a trace, i.e., “perceived by the eye as a consequence of visual impressions no longer present,” yet haunting; but it’s also a “charge or expense,” something we must pay for, one way or another. This “incidental poetics,” if you will, is one way to distinguish Floating Life from Reticent Bodies. Do you agree? And, perhaps the tougher question, what is the relationship between the “incidental” (as described) and the experience of love, to which it seems connected in the poems?
No, I don’t think an interest in incidental things depends on a willingness to be exposed. I think it’s more a willingness to have your ears and eyes open and a willingness to be changed by things around us. I’ve become interested in things that have nothing to do with what we will— things that seem to arise without intention. Like in “Amsterdam Bridges”— it was beautiful and strange and incidental that when I looked at sunset all the buildings were orange with the light and at that moment the sky where I was standing was filled with so many airplanes. It was fantastic. I’d just been staring at Van Goghs and the two visions— the paintings and the sky— felt equal. Or, much more darkly, the two events that are brought together in “Theseus and Aegeus” (the letter I received from my publisher saying, yes, and my father’s illness)— those juxtapositions interest me. They make life feel strange. Or, in “Greek Exterior,” the alcoholic juxtaposed against the woman and her graceful stretching gesture at the end of the poem and their different freedoms. Incidental things are a way for me to get away from canned sentiments and stories and conversations and forms and towards something that’s more genuine, unsteady, beautiful, unpredictable and contingent on the atmosphere and influences crowding around us. This is also related to the airiness and what I think you were getting at earlier. These poems are open to the peculiarities and strangeness of the world and don’t have that heavy, metaphysical weight. For me, over these last few years, the world seems too absurd for that. And that’s how love seems to happen to people I know. An openness, then your life changes course. Most people, after it happens, there’s that going back over the incidental things. What impression was made. What was talked about. The recounting of the coincidences and near misses. And those incidental things lose their innocence, they join the narrative the two people desire for themselves, and become significant, one dimensional and telling. But when these moments are incidental, before the narrative subsumes them, their meaning is richer, ambiguous, full of potential and much more interesting to me.
Moving in a new direction, could you talk a little bit about the first section of “Pastorals,” which is subtitled ‘Ethics’: “… how could I join a poetry circle. / It’s easy. They asked. I said yes. // The poem we made / was so so.” Is this an expression of regret or self-critique? And could you give a little background to what you’re talking about, because I’m curious about the poem’s commentary on community and aesthetics.
That poem was provoked by a poet friend of mine who has more integrity than I do. I think he felt that my joining a group poetry project was a betrayal of principles: with a lofty, idealistic political goal and a rigid process how could the poem that comes out of that collaboration be interesting? He was proved right. The poem we all made together was extremely so so. So this poem from “Pastorals” was a way to come clean about that experience. It’s a mixture of regret and self-critique. It acknowledges that the collaborative project didn’t work, but it’s also a smile and wave and a message to my friend saying that our two notions of integrity are different. Collaboration is no threat to my independence or originality. I don’t feel compromised or beholden to anyone but my own sense of what needs to be said and what I want to say. If I was asked, I would be interested in collaborating again but I would want the process to be more intense - for the people involved to argue and push each other and fully commit to it. Larger than this though is my belief that an interesting poem justifies itself. Uninteresting poems, the ones that don’t have power or allure, these are the ones where the process and intent get questioned.
I think that this might be a good point— given what you’ve just described— to discuss another key distinction between Reticent Bodies and Floating Life. The former had work that generically qualifies as ‘political poetry’. The latter, not so much. Could you discuss that shift? And, more importantly, do you get pissed when people ask you this very sort of question, i.e., because the question perhaps assumes a lot about your status as a visible/ethnic minority in relation to poetry and poetics?
Now, in the spirit of welcoming the incidental or the rich juxtaposition, let’s also talk about Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963). What is it that you find so compelling about the film’s central scene, a long argument/discussion— at times playful, other times scathing, and still other times tragic— between Camille and Paul? I ask because your book is full of what I would call domestic-love poems, where there is clearly love and sincerity and a degree of sweetness, but also cruel irony, insincerity, infidelity, selfishness, sadism, etc. The speaker ain’t always nice, let’s say.
That’s an interesting couple of questions, and I think they’re related. Let me start with the first one and put it this way: both books are interested in power. A political poem is one that shines a light on an unethical exercise of power. That’s what I tried to do in some of the poems in Reticent Bodies. To try to show that power isn’t something to be valourized. In Floating Life, in the poems you’re alluding to, I try to show how power reveals itself in domestic and romantic situations — and how that tension that power introduces can attract and damage. So Floating Life is a pivot from Reticent Bodies, not a difference.
Regarding skin, my skin, and the skin of other poets and their aesthetics: every poet is interested in power. I don’t mean that every poet desires power, but that every poet interrogates power. This is inherent in the act of writing. It doesn’t matter what the skin tone or ancestry of the poet is. So, you could look at tone, diction, imagery— not just the meaning of the poem and the value system that’s conveyed— and observe how each writer situates themselves and what they resist and what they take on. Even in the way poets or other people mystify themselves— that mystification is a shortcut to authority and power. Every poet interrogates power. It doesn’t matter what their hue of skin or background. I interrogate power too. I’m interested in how nations lean against each other and maneuver and what the costs of this brinkmanship are. A poem like “Realpolitik” from my first book is about that cost. I’m also interested in how people lean against each other and maneuver and how power appears in something as close to home as a party on a Friday night. An example of this is “Narcissus Perceives his Echo,” from Floating Life. Another example is towards the end of the book: “Cairo” is about representation and point of view. It’s a political poem dressed up as innocuous travel vignettes. A political poem doesn’t have to be about nations and war and distant abuses of power. It can be about personal attempts of domination, misrepresentation and imposing your will on another, marginalizing them or narrowing their choices. I’ve done those things and had them done to me, so I was drawn to write about them.
Now, for the second question, I know Contempt is one of your favourite movies and we talked about it a few days ago after I finally watched it. I didn’t know anything about it when I saw it so that argument in the middle of the movie floored me. It went on for so long and sustained the tension— I thought that was so daring. Neither of the them— Bardot and Michel Piccoli— raise their voices and they drink Coke during it and they each take a bath! It was interesting to me because that argument seems to be a power struggle after their marriage has been exposed for what it is: Bardot loved Piccoli. She’s drifting around in her own cloud and leads another man on in front of her husband, but she loves Piccoli. Piccoli loves being close to Bardot’s beauty and glamour. He loves the social power that Bardot gives him. I say this because he’s not joyous or romantic with her when they’re alone. So what’s at stake in that argument seems to be his dignity. Their love is gone, but they’re still squabbling. He spends that argument trying to win his dignity back. Meanwhile, Bardot gets more beautiful and dignified as the movie goes on. The opening shot when she’s in bed could easily be in a hospital; there’s no eroticism. It’s so cold. On the other hand, when she swims near the end of the movie — that’s beautiful and, following her breakup with Piccoli, when she resolves to get a job and shake her life up, her integrity is stronger than its ever been.
The other interesting part of that movie is the relationship between Palance’s brash, rich character and the Fritz Lang’s mellow, wise irony that undermines Palance’s power. Lang seems to be the most dignified character in the movie. He makes his art and distances himself from Palance’s vulgarity with soft-spoken irony. Palance is great in that role— there’s even the one shot when he’s standing in front of a tall window and has his hands on it and looks like a well-dressed ape staring out of a cage. I like Lang’s approach and his calm irony. His power is ethical. He’s subversive and at peace with himself and is absorbed in creating something.
I think in quite a few places of this book— to get back to Floating Life— I tried a different approach than Lang’s. I tried divesting myself of whatever power I do have. So, in writing these poems, I was avoiding the typical sounds and rhythms that connote power and authority in lyric poetry. That explains the book’s tone and style. This divestment is most apparent in the poems from the last section: “Greek Exterior” is two people happily relinquishing power while an alcoholic clings stubbornly to his. “Night” has a similar undertone and so does “Trinity Bellwoods.” I wanted to divest myself and float. I don’t think that’s a solution— I think Lang’s approach has more integrity— and I’m going to live differently now— but it’s what I did these past few years when I was traveling around.
Moez Surani is a poet, reviewer and short fiction author. His writing has been included in numerous anthologies and literary journals, including Contemporary Verse 2 and The Walrus. He has attended writing residencies in Finland, Latvia and Switzerland, and his writing has won the Chalmers Arts Fellowship, the Kingston Literary Award and the Antigonish Review’s Poem of the Year prize. He lives in Toronto where he is the poetry editor for the Toronto Review of Books.