Poetry, song, discourse, and, of course, samosas, all abounded at the March 23rd Surrey Muse gathering, hosted by Sana Janjua.
Betsy Warland initiated the evening’s featured presentations with readings of her poetry, and excerpts from her essays, as well as from an upcoming novel set in part in Vancouver. Ms.Warland is a creative nonfiction writer, poet, essayist, teacher, manuscript consultant, and editor. She is known as a writer dedicated to emerging writers, and is the director of The Writer’s Studio Program at Simon Fraser University’s Writing and Publishing Program, and of her own five month manuscript development program, Vancouver Manuscript Intensive.
Her poems “Dark Thoughts” and “Origin of Contradiction” explored the relationship between darkness and light in our lives. Ms.Warland commented that the complexity of that relationship is in her opinion particularly relevant in what she described as today’s somber times. She also reflected on that gap that almost always exists between the author’s ideas, and the manner in which the audience perceives their work. She mentioned that she is continually surprised to learn what a different identity her work can have for the reader – in some cases completely divergent from her intentions, and her inspiration for the piece.
Ms.Warland also read from the novel she is currently working on that is partly set in Vancouver. She read an excerpt in which Oscar, the main protagonist, negotiates her own identity in the face of rigid standards of femininity while camping with other youth. Oscar soon hears about the massacre in the Norwegian summer youth camp that made the headlines a little while ago. The horrific prospect of never being safe despite appearances to the contrary reflects on her own dilemma, and her life in general.
Ms.Warland’s reading of a poem about a missing Vancouver girl that was composed entirely from excerpts of missing women posters, drew an emotional response both from the author, and from the Surrey Muse audience. The author mentioned that she is touched by the injustice and violence that young people living on the streets of East Vancouver or Downtown Eastside experience on a daily basis, and that she felt compelled to commemorate their lives with this particular work.
A few of the questions that Ms.Warland received in the discussion period after her reading focused on her preferred form of writing. The author mentioned that she favours a fluid approach to form, and likes writing in lyric prose which blends elements of both poetry and prose. And while some audience members questioned the necessity of precise definition of form, others suggested that presenting a work with reference to a specific form has practical value in that it might make for a more accessible audience presentation.
After Ms.Warland, Phinder Dulai took the stage as the evening’s featured poet. Mr.Dulai is a Surrey based poet, freelance writer, editor, and journalist who has been writing and contributing to the development of cultural communities in Surrey for the past two decades. He introduced his work as having a strong social aesthetic, and frequently exploring the relationship between identity, race, and culture. The title of his poetry collection “Basmati Brown” was motivated by the corporate competition that took place some time ago, and that was to result in one company winning exclusive rights to growing a particular type of basmati rice grain. The commodification of South Asian culture implicit in this corporate manouver inspired the tone of that poetry collection. His poem “Desert Fragments” explored both the positive and negative aspects of being rooted in the Punjabi South Asian community, while “100 Ways to Die” delivered his unique take on the issue of gang violence in that same community.
The socially conscious aesthetic permeates not only the content, but also the form of Mr.Dulai’s work. This inclination is particularly evident in his “Ragas from the Periphery” collection, since ragas are traditional melodic modes used in Indian classical music. In Mr. Dulai’s work, ragas are poems that have musical, sing song elements. The mellifluous quality of poems like “Nocturnal Song” exemplifies the lyrical capacity of the raga form.
Mr.Dulai demonstrated the diversity of tone in his work by reading a few humorous poems as well like the “Atomic Eeyore”, and the “Soothsayer’s Word” – the latter being a comic take on the meant-to-be-narratives, featuring a contrast between the author being told that he was destined to influence and direct people, and the realization of that notion in the somewhat modest reality of working as a parking lot attendant in his college days. Mr.Dulai reflected on the fact that a significant part of the writing process for him consists of asking what is poetry, and continually evolving the answer. He said that he is greatly influenced by a modernist contemporary aesthetic, but is open to expanding his writing style.
Much of the discussion following Mr.Dulai’s reading echoed the concepts and ideas brought up after Ms.Warland’s presentation, in particular those about form, genre, and the interpretative role of the reader. When asked whether he consciously changes his language when writing socially and politically pointed work, he answered that he used to write in a more emphatic political voice in those situations, but now tries to make sure that the language is more nuanced, and therefore more suitable to poetry. One audience member wanted to know if Mr.Dulai writes in forms other than poetry. Mr. Dulai replied that although he would like to embrace prose, that he finds himself unable to balance being inspired while writing in the longer format that prose most often requires, and therefore ends up always reverting to poetry. There were also a few questions about whether reading his work in front of an audience makes him experience it differently, and the author affirmed that he definitely catches different nuances on each different reading, thereby modifying, and in a sense, recreating the work at each different presentation.
The last presenter for the evening was Enrico Renz, a Burnaby based musician who is coming back more actively to his music after a twenty five year hiatus, and is poised to release his first cd this year. Though he plays several instruments, Mr.Renz focused on acoustic guitar during this gathering, and played a selection of songs that blended humour with socially and environmentally pointed sentiments, even featuring a bit of physical comedy and mimicry. He opened with a poem that used a fishbowl as a metaphor for our society of constant surveillance and invasive transparency, and obsession with technology that not only greatly contributes to the demise of environment and our health, but also frequently commodifies and stifles creativity.
“Oh, Humanity” was a song about monkeys that satirically reflected on the supposed progress humanity has made from its tree climbing primate days, and the abuse of other living beings that has occurred as a result. There was a song about a woman lost in the urban cityscape that no one is looking for anymore, once again highlighting the isolation of modern life. “Labyrinth” was the last song Mr.Renz performed, and the lyrics spoke about loving one’s own labyrinth before getting out – a poignant and beautiful metaphor for owning the complexity of one’s life, and exploiting the creative potential of pain and confusion.
Mr.Renz received a few questions about his writing and composing process, and also about performing for different types of audiences. He mentioned that he often plays music for contact dance groups – where dancers improvise spontaneous and interactive movement to music, and naturally that environment demands a very different musical sensibility than performing at a gathering such as the Surrey Muse. Mr.Renz is known for his gradual and thorough process when it comes to creating music, and in fact describes himself as not so much a music builder as a music gardener – someone who nurtures ideas patiently, and builds them to maturity over time.
Following the featured artist presentations, several writers took the stage for open mic readings. Mariam Zohra Durrani initiated the open mic presentations with a reading of a haunting poem in which the protagonist seemed to wrestle with raw and painful memories. Franci Louann, who was the featured book signing author that evening, read a couple of her poems that explored the loss of love (or, possibly, loved ones), and the painful fading of memories that goes along with that process. Valerie B.-Taylor read a prose excerpt about a woman sleeping, where the image of her body mummified by the sheets that enveloped her seemed to stand as a metaphor for the complexity and the confinement of her femininity.
Jason Sunder followed with his eclectic combination of experimental poetry that seemed to mix a modernist aesthetic with a postmodernist and absurdist subject matter and tone. Jo Martinez followed with a prose piece about the value of exploring one’s dreams and ambitions. Sonja Grgar read a micro-prose piece that is to be published this year in an anthology, and three poems featuring a raw exploration of love, loss, and gratitude. Fauzia Rafique closed the evening’s open mic with her poem “Sharia Compliant Bra” which used a humorous mother-daughter dialogue to provide a satirically biting critique of how female bodies and sexuality are handled in a conservative Islamic environment.
Copyright By Sonja Grgar