Checking In: phafours poet: Guy Simser

Today in Checking In, Where Are They Now: phafours poet: Guy Simser, the current president of KaDo Ottawa, a haiku group. Guy has 2 published books and a chapbook and is a long-time member of Ottawa’s poetry scene. He has stood as contest judges. He has won the Diane Brebner Poetry Prize, Carleton University Poetry Prize, AHA Books Tanka Sequence Prize (USA), Keji Aso Senryu Prize (USA); Hekinan Haiku Special Prize (Japan); and the IODE Ontario Short Story, CBC Ottawa Radio Documentary, and Alberta Culture Radio Drama Prizes. 

PP: What have you read lately that lit you up? Why or how?

GS: Just finished CAIN (hard cover edition,150 pages) by Nobel Laureate Jose Saramago. His last published book. I can imagine him laughing his way into the grave. CAIN offers a rib cracking parodic donkey ride through the Old Testament according to Saramago. If only my Sunday School teachers had had the chance to read it in the late 30’s & early 40’s; and would they have done so if it was available to them??? Thank Heaven for humour, particularly in these days of wars and Covid and Monkey flu, et al. 

At the same time, I have been reading Cdn Military Historian Tim Cook’s At the Sharp End. An examination of WW1 through the eyes of the soldiers at the front. As a Cold War infantryman on duty in Germany I find this a worthwhile reminder of our human weaknesses and strengths under the worst deprivations, moral and physical.

Lastly, I just finished local poet David Blaikie’s A Season in Lowertown (Wet Ink Books): winner of the 2021 Don Gutteridge Poetry Award. David has a mature reporter’s eyes and ears which brings his 70’s Ottawa city “gritty” memories vividly to reader. Gritty yes, but so human too as expressed in the last poem of the book, ‘The Bridge’, “where we mellowed without resistance in the soft slow melt of time and words walked lightly on our tongues in the crevices of our days…” I’ll leave that poem’s final stanza for the reader to appreciate in the quiet of his/her reading. David is an Ottawa Mother Tongues group poet, originally from “Down East” and that geographical origin for me is frequently evident in his poetic voice. Not surprisingly, his book is dedicated to G.G. Award winning poet Alan Nowlan.

PP: What’s life’s focus these days, literary or otherwise?

GS: Well Pearl, I’m stepping outside of my box at 87…I have a collection of 153 pages of poems/prose nearing completion, yet… now seriously considering reframing this as a short poem/prose novel of a child-mother relationship “do no harm” and that child carrying an unexplained guilt to old age. “Hast thou forsaken me?” I figure one is never to old to experiment and I have no reputation to try t o protect, so why not give it a try?

PP: What is underway or forthcoming?

GS: I do spare time work on polishing some draft ekphrastic poems… I enjoy the creative buzz certain works of art/artists give me in my unfinished work pile, however most of my writing is now focused on the draft project noted above. 

PP: What work do you have out? 

GS: She Don’t Mean a Thing if She Ain’t Got that Swing by Guy Simser (Catkin Press, 2016), Shaking the Basho Tree (essays on haiku) by Guy Simser (Inkling press, 2017), War is the Father of Us All (phafours press, 2015) and Chromatic Beliefs (group chapbooks, phafours, 2011)

PP: Any author site or social media urls you’d like to drop? 

GS: Note Blaikie’s book mentioned above.

Thanks for the opportunity Pearl.

Mini-interview: Sanna Wani

Sanna Wani is a Kashmiri settler living near the Missinnihe river (Eastern Ojibwa: trusting waters), on land stewarded since time immemorial by the Mississauga of the New Credit, the Anishnaabeg, the Chippewa, the Wendat, and the Haudnosaunee among many other diverse First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.

What draws me to the writer: Hugely anticipated at grass roots, Sanna Wani’s vivid poetry collection My Grief, the Sun, has been getting big love after her debut chapbook, The Pink of The Seams (Penrose Press, 2019).

My Grief, the Sun by Sanna Wani

About the Book:

Sharply political and frequently magical, these poems reach for everything from Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 film Princess Mononoke to German Orientalist scholarship on early Islam. Love and grief sit side by side. My Grief, the Sun listens carefully to the planet’s breathing, addresses the endless and ineffable you, and promises enough joy and sorrow to keep growing.

Praise for the book:

“Sanna Wani’s My Grief, the Sun makes such a convincing case for astonishment as a way of life. Each poem enveloped me with so much tenderness it was as if were the sun! The theological music that courses throughout the book was not a narrowing toward some esoteric knowledge but rather an opening toward a collective sense of enmeshment with the inscrutable world. This book is a necessary reminder that ‘there is something inside / [us] that says live.’ My Grief, the Sun is a wonder and a delight.” — Billy-Ray Belcourt, author of This Wound Is a World and NDN Coping Mechanisms

Wani practices the act of artful surrender to each poem’s strange, budding logic. That she can do so with such apparent ease is astonishing. That we get to witness the places her gorgeous poems take her is a profound gift. I’m wonderstruck.” — Heather Christle, author of Heliopause and The Trees The Trees.

Sample:

read the rest of the sample at Anansi

Questions:

PP: For an unanswerable rhetorical question to start, how do you make something so fresh and alive as that?

SW: You’re sweet! I wrote that because I read this fresh and alive poem, “Insha’Allah” by Danusha Laméris.

PP: Your poems are dense and agile, pivoting yet holding together in leaps. Do they come together assembled from pieces or come out of a passionate stream-of-consciousness?

SW: They tend to come out in one fell swoop. But it’s messy! I edit very slowly and very particularly. Have you heard that quote? A poet will move a comma in the morning and a comma at night and say, Oh what a day’s work! My friend’s dad told me that. But sometimes there are new waves hiding behind commas, cracks in the rocks, pieces hiding behind other pieces.

PP: Do you have writing rituals that help you into the writing frame of mind or do you write in stolen moments?

SW: Definitely stolen moments for poetry. Middle of the night, subway rides, grocery stores. I want to try the writing desk routine life someday but that day has not come yet.

For editing or prose, I can sit at a desk or in bed and crank something out. But my poetry is much more chaotic. Like catching sight of a bird and having to drop everything to chase it before its gone.

PP: What was the most fun part of making the collection?
SW: Ordering it! It was also torture. Laying everything out, choosing the way poems appeared felt like making a roadmap. Some stayed, some went. And then I set it all on fire! 

PP: Heh, sometimes that’s the route we have to take to get to something better. Thank you for your time and for your poems.

Where are they now?

Coming up over the next few months there will be a series of sporadic interviews with the over 80 poets who were published by phafours press since it launched in 2007. Checking In will ask a few standard questions and see what’s new with these poets.

Some were included in anthology chapbooks, some in flutterbooks, some in single-author chapbooks.

The mini-interview of poets with new books will also continue. There’s at least another half dozen to come.

Mini-interview: Sheniz Janmohamed

Sheniz Janmohamed was born and raised in Toronto, with ancestral ties to Kenya, Kutch and Gujarat. A graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing at Guelph, Sheniz has been published in a variety of journals including CV2, Quill & Quire and Canadian Literature. A spoken word artist, Sheniz has performed across the world at venues including the Vancouver Writers Fest, Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA), Jaipur Literature Festival, Alliance Francaise de Nairobi and the Aga Khan Museum. An arts educator and nature artist, Sheniz regularly visits schools and community organizations to teach and perform.  Sheniz has three collections of poetry, published by Mawenzi House:  Bleeding Light (2010), Firesmoke (2014) and most recently, Reminders on the Path (2021). 

What drew me to this poet: When she came to the Ottawa Small Press fair with her first book of ghazals, I bought it. Unlike John Thompson’s Stilt Jack, these were poems closer to the oral root of refrain and passion, rather than broken ghazals of suicide ideation. Her new book has been profiled by CBC and Canthius.

The book:  Reminders on the Path (Mawenzi House, 2021)

Sample:

Like this 
I speak a language unspoken, 
of timeless streams of blood 
poured from one chalice
to the next— 
an unbroken lineage of ache. 
If I raise the draught of the past to my lips,
 I’ll become a relic
in the museum of my own making. 
How do I walk into the sun
of who I’ve become
without searching for the shadows 
of who I was? 
I turn my attention to
a river of flame-tipped tulips 
winding its way between this path, 
scarlet goblets opening
for silver sheets of rain. 
A glimmer of sunlight
flickers between
a single line of drenched poplars. 
Like this
just like this. 

 Reminders on the Path (Mawenzi House, 2021)

About the Book: Infused with the language of place, the poems in this collection are stepping-stones from the author’s past to her present, from forgetfulness to remembrance, The poet is wayfarer: at each step she sees reminders of the ephemeral and the indelible.

Praise for the book:

Tracing the movements of her generational forebears through crossings from India to East Africa to North America, this gifted mystic poet reminds us that while our outer journeys bring dislocations too heavy to bear, our inner journeys bring us back to a shattered heart that finds, in its remembering, healing and wholeness in the present. –Zayn Kassam, Professor of Religious Studies, Pomona College

Lyrics of longing and surrender float down the pages of Sheniz Janmohamed’s startling third collection, Reminders on the Path. Here, ghazals are not just couplets of emotion, free verse is not without form, these are the precise political unravelings of a human being living on Turtle Island with a heart that beats in Sufic Persia. The poet asks, What is the motherland? What is the land? Who am I in diaspora? And then, the garden enters the poet to show the way. – Tawhida Tanya Evanson, author of Book of Wings, longlisted for Canada Reads

Questions:

PP: In a Canthius review, Namitha Rathinappillai remarks how your poems anchor in being part of the whole, and entrench “hyper-awareness of one’s positionality in their lineage” descendant and future ancestor. Is this responsibility to the future excite and cause stage fright?

SJ: Thank you for such an insightful question. I often think about why we, as a culture, avoid the more challenging aspects of our responsibility to the future. Perhaps because it can feel debilitating and overwhelming. For me, the responsibility to the future, if deeply peered into, should terrify and inspire. The weight of responsibility from one generation to the next requires investigating within, listening, and then paving forward in collaboration with the ones who came before us, and the ones who follow.  What anchors me in reality, free from abstraction, is to just sit with one person who is younger than me, and truly understand what they need. That is a form of gazing into the future. 

PP: Your imagery is paired with leaning into truth-telling. What is it that makes a poem grab you with its necessity as you write?

SJ: I have to keep returning to direct experience. While I’m writing, I’m careful not to direct the poem into meaning, but instead, allow it to reveal itself to me.   I try to listen for what the image or set of words is trying to convey, and get to the truth of it, unobscured by my own bias. I return to a guiding question: How can I serve the poem?
So often there’s a notion that we direct the writing, but sometimes the writing directs us. That is a form of truth-telling. 

PP: Many writers write for what they wish they had to read as a young person? Is that part of your drive as well?
SJ: Partly, but it’s also for what I need to hear at this moment. Poems, or the windows that open into poems, are reminders and anchors for my everyday life.  That said, I’m not writing in a silo. We’re often asked the question, “Who do you write for?” but I am learning to reframe the question as, “Who do I write with?” 


PP:
What was or were your favourite moment(s) in making this book?
SJ: A lot of my favourite moments in making this book were not in the process of writing it, but in the process of preparing the ground for it. 
– I visited Kenya in 2017 and 2019, taking notes and interviewing my maternal grandmother about her life experiences, some of which made their way into the book. While I was there, I also created a catalogue of the plants, flowers and trees in our garden, which served as a lexicon for Reminders. -I’m a tactile person, so when I returned from Kenya, I made index cards with big questions and colour-coordinated notecards with images and symbols. I laid them out on my floor and paired them together for writing experiments. Over the months, the cards took different shapes, and eventually I formed a path of words through them. This process was deeply satisfying and playful, and allowed me to pull from my own distilled experiences to shape my book. 

As I’m also an artist, I found multiple entry points into the creation of my book. In the early days, I was envisioning the book as a paradise garden– so I sketched one. The sketch served as inspiration for the structure of my book, even though the form evolved over time.  When I began dreaming up my book, I felt that the tone of the book was hued  emerald and gold. When I had a chance to create the cover art, I was able to bring that vision to life. The materials I used were found in and around my house, which makes it even more special. I also made original sketches for each section, which act as visual markers for different stages of the journey. 

Mini-interview: Leslie Roach

Leslie Roach was born and raised in Montreal. She is a lawyer who worked for the United Nations for 10 years. She is currently based in Ottawa, where she works for the Supreme Court of Canada.

What drew me to the writer: An Ottawa writer on a compelling topic led me to insta-buy. I found it outstanding, an alert, honest response to deep consideration.

Finish This Sentence by Leslie Roach (Mawenzi, 2021)

About the book: Finish this Sentence is her first book of poetry and was nominated for the Lampman Award. It is about a personal experience in dealing with racism and healing from its effects. As this book weaves through the anger and anxiety provoked by racism, it points to the ultimate realization: one is neither the conditioning nor the incessant chatter that racism can provoke. Rather, one is powerful and able to arrest those harmful thoughts. Awakening to these truths have helped Leslie to heal. She hopes that her work will be beneficial to others as well. Pssst stephanie roberts(!!) gave it a 5 star on GoodReads.

Sample:

Power

Thank you for
excluding
me so
much.

I got so
fed up
that I
found
my
way
out.

Leslie Roach, Finish this Sentence, p. 64

Questions:

PP: Understandably, poignant and powerful keep coming up with regards to your book.

A lot of lines struck me with impact as well, such as in ‘The Poor Majority’, p. 35, “We are a minority./ No we are a majority. Collectively.” Understandably, poignant and powerful keep coming up with regards to your book.

On p. 55, ‘Manifest’ you write, “see/feel what your body is tell you. Stay there. Feel that opening”. And in p. 55, ‘Manifest’, “see/feel what your body is telling you. Stay there. Feel that opening”. Do you find that meditation gives mental space to write the eurekas that come?

LR: I consider the poem ‘Manifest’ to be the crux of Finish this Sentence. It speaks of healing from the racist experiences I had growing up. My healing has been through the written word, and in 2018, I discovered mindfulness, which propelled me forward.

Mindfulness (practicing presence) helped me to gain separation. It helped me to call things out very explicitly and to know that racism has nothing to do with me. It has to do with the lost souls who are racist, and that harm belongs to them, not me. With my writing, which is therapeutic, I bear witness to the trauma and rise above.

I am now acutely attuned to how I feel in each and every moment. This allows me to respond to situations from a place of power. Indeed, practicing mindfulness helped me to know and honour my worth. And I’ve seen the magic that comes from following one’s intuition and bliss. I aim to write about all of that and the things in between.

PP: With Covid have you had a chance to perform any of the book live?

LR: My book came out during the pandemic, and I’ve only had the opportunity to perform it virtually. Those virtual experiences have been rewarding. The highlight was talking to groups of high school art students via Zoom. Those students created art to represent various poems in “Finish this Sentence”. The message of claiming one’s right to be happy and not letting anyone define you resonated with them.  

Performing my work live in front of an actual audience will be a totally new experience. I look forward to it! 

PP: Has Covid made your writing stall or be spurred?

LR: The pandemic has helped me to uncover the different parts of me and to appreciate how my artistic journey has unfolded. It afforded me distance and space to get a better sense of who I am. With the launch of the book, I suddenly had people echoing back to me, which has been tremendously beneficial to my self-discovery and artistic journey.

The pandemic has been kind to my writing. As a solitary and pensive person, I appreciated the long periods of time at home, which allowed me to reflect and process my feelings. The pandemic gave me a better understanding of where I would like to go with my writing and where I need to focus my energy. My writing has been prolific during this period. I am now in the process of doing a massive triage of the work I have produced. 

PP: That’s fabulous, so there new work underway we can look forward to? About what?

LR: There is definitely new work to look forward to! I am in the process of editing my next collection.

The central theme of my writing is making sense of one’s place in this world and living in presence and with purpose. I wish to pay homage to the people and circumstances which led me to claim my human right to be happy. 

My poetry has covered so many topics during the pandemic. For example, I have written poems about being a spiritual being and navigating the world as such. I’ve also written about: the world of work; working from home; parenting; relationships; solitude; community; and following one’s bliss. I have also written poetry about poetry itself and journaling, and about the spiritual/artistic path. So, all that work needs to be released!