Shazia Hafiz Ramji talks about childhood inspirations from R.L. Stine, encyclopedias, and Wordsworth, what it took to finish Port of Being and an accompanying playlist (Book to be released October 15th with Invisible Publishing) and how Tarot helps her write fiction.
Tamara Jong: Hey Shazia, congrats on recently getting an honorable mention for your story “Pilgrims” in the 2018 Emerging Writers Fiction contest run by Humber Literary Review. Last year Prosopopoeia came out in 2017 with Anstruther Press and your debut book of Poetry Port of Being is coming out this fall with Invisible Publishing. How long did it take to work on the manuscript and what was it like to work with Invisible?
Shazia Hafiz Ramji: Thank you, Tamara! It was such an honour to have that story recognized. I feel vulnerable when it comes to sending out fiction and don’t do so often. It means the world to me that the judges — none other than Ayelet Tsabari and Cherie Dimaline — felt this story was worthy of making the cut. It’s the first story I had the guts to send out and it’s a very important story for me.
The poems in Port of Being were written over the span of a few years, from 2014 to now, so it’s taken me a few years to get this book together. A chunk of it was written in early 2017 when I quit my job as a poetry editor at a local press and woke up at 6:30 every day, including weekends, to write. I was in a real bad state after that job (where an older woman bullied and harassed me in an insidious way and was my reason for leaving). I’m sure that I kept my writing discipline because I was fearful of slipping back into major depressive disorder, which I’ve experienced before and which terrifies me. The writing routine was based on necessity and I feel as though it saved me in many ways. When POB received the Robert Kroetch Award for Innovative Poetry in spring 2017, I couldn’t believe it. The sole judge for it was Wayde Compton, a writer whose work I revere and whose presence in the community is a beacon for me. I was so happy. Around the same time, my Anstruther chapbook had been published. Compiling the chapbook allowed me to recognize and follow themes and obsessions in my work. It was a treat to work with Jim Johnstone, who was so patient, encouraging, and generous. In the chapbook, I noticed that themes around surveillance, migration, space, and the waterfront kept resurfacing, and POB grew when I became receptive to them.
My publisher, Leigh Nash, is an amazing person who has the kind of integrity and enthusiasm I admire and respect. She’s been so supportive and generous. I even get a $500 advance! Julie Wilson, the publicist at Invisible, has also been so considerate, sensitive, and generous. I’m very lucky that my book is in the intelligent and nurturing hands of Leigh and Julie. Not a day goes by when I haven’t been thankful for their work on the book and their support throughout. They are a dream team for any author.
TJ: In your recent interview with Rachel Thompson on Lit Mag Love Episode 10: Stick with Writers, Rachel asked you when you knew that you were a writer. You mentioned that as a kid you were always writing and that your first poem was about a sidewinder snake and it got published. Did you have any favorite childhood books that influenced you or your writing growing up?
SHR: Hmm… I read nothing but R.L. Stine and the kid versions of One Thousand and One Nights. I also loved spending entire afternoons with those illustrated multi-volume encyclopedias. But when I was around 11 or 12, William Wordsworth was my favourite. I used to be a very quiet and sensitive but rebellious kid. I feel that after discovering his poems, I felt less lonely in terms of being that way. I don’t think I write about childhood or daffodils, but that’s not to say that the spirit of his poems and the quality of his emotion haven’t influenced me until today. It was freeing to find his work when I was young. The influence of One Thousand and One Nights has yet to rear its head, but I suspect it has something to do with my love for nested stories and metafiction.
TJ: When you’re writing poetry or stories, is your process different or similar to create the work? What are your sources of inspiration before starting your writing projects? Do you have any rituals?
SHR: The process is different for sure. With poetry, I feel that it’s an intuitive process. The poems that hold a lot of meaning for me personally have begun with a voice in my head (I hear voices sometimes, but I am sane!). Other poems begin with “voice” in terms of overheard conversation. Research usually follows, but it’s mostly research for language and patterns, or “research walks” to find an image and mood. When writing poems, I’m okay with ambiguity and not knowing where an intuition or a voice will take me. The thrill of discovery is motivating. With fiction, the ambiguity sometimes scares me. It’s also an intuitive process, but the steps to articulate and formalize that intuition are far more rigorous and emotionally demanding. Sometimes I have to make sure I don’t talk to any people for a few days if I’m working on a story because it asks for all my emotional energy! Often for fiction, I use the Tarot to develop characters and think through the structure of a story. I see the Tarot as a less reductive way of asking psychological questions and it gives me room to make archetypes as complex and as individual as real people. In terms of rituals, I always burn palo santo before I write. It’s the best! I also take the time to look at things I’ve stuck up on the wall in front of my desk. There are quotes from various recovery group materials over the years. There is also a post-it note with a task in the handwriting of my favourite prof, which serves as a reminder that there are people who have helped me and that I’m not alone. And there are black-and-white printer mugshots of David Foster Wallace, Jennifer Egan, Nina Simone, James Baldwin, Hervé Guibert, Rachel Kushner, Dionne Brand, and others, which remind me that they’ve worked through things that matter to me and they’ve come out on the other side with resonant and moving work, despite everything. The mugshots are like a cheap mini gallery I curate on my wall. I know it might be a little weird, but there we go. I love people’s faces.
TJ: Maya Angelou writes in rented hotel rooms. She takes a thesaurus, a Bible, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a bottle of sherry with her. She would write lying across the hotel bed. Agatha Christie used to come up with ideas for her books in her bathtub while eating apples. Gertrude Stein used to write in her Model T-Ford. What kind of spaces do you like to write in? Can you please share a picture of your favorite writing spaces?
SHR: If I could live in a hotel, I definitely would! Here is a pic of my writing desk in my bedroom. And yes, those are industrial-grade earmuffs for construction work on my desk. I love close-to-total silence when I’m doing the actual writing (which is construction work in a way)!
TJ: What was the last book you read?
SHR: I don’t read one book at a time, but I recently read Lynn Crosbie’s Chicken in one day! What an incredible book. She deserves far more recognition than she receives. I also just finished Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin and The Art of Cruelty by Maggie Nelson. Variety is renewing!
TJ: What would you include in Port of Being’s playlist?
SHR: This is such a cool question! Thank you for giving me this space to nerd out, Tamara… I wrote under the influence of many songs! One of the poems in the first section, “Container,” mentions “Jeff Mills.” I wrote a poem to “The Bells” by Jeff Mills, which is a classic techno track that’s super fast-paced. I was in a serene mood overlooking the harbour, but my mind was going 1000 miles an hour, and that track was perfect for the rhythm of the poem. In the second and third more cyborgy sections called “Surveiller” and “Spooky Actors at a Distance,” I was listening to Aphex Twin, Scientific Dreamz of U, and a tonne of Brian Eno. In fact, the lyrics for “By This River” by Eno (“you talk to me, as if from a distance, and I reply with impressions chosen from another time…”) perfectly capture what I was trying to achieve with this book, especially in the first and third sections, where I was thinking through relations between people and objects, but also patterns and echoes from different times in history that may not be obvious on first glance, like the current use of unmanned aerial vehicles / drones and the use of war pigeons in WWI and WWII. I also distinctly remember bawling my eyes out and listening to 22nd Century by Nina Simone when moving through the second and third sections. That song is so dystopian and visionary and wholehearted. I love Nina Simone. Her music also got me through the fourth section, “Flags of Convenience.” In one of the poems in that section, I draw from her words explicitly. Willis Earl Beal and Public Image Ltd helped me stay true to myself to make decisions about the poems for the last section. Most mornings though, I got into writing mode with goosebumpy piano tunes by Joanna Brouk, and especially this one called “The Homeless Wanderer” by Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou. Thinking about the music and the emotions I went through has made me realize the book is quite dystopian, but it’s not without hope, even though it made me cry a shitload 🙁
Shazia Hafiz Ramji received the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry for Port of Being, forthcoming with Invisible Publishing in fall 2018. She was a finalist for the 2018 Alberta Magazine Awards and the 2016 National Magazine Awards. Her fiction has been longlisted for the Fiddlehead’s 2018 fiction prize and received an honourable mention for The Humber Literary Review’s 2018 Emerging Writers Fiction Contest, judged by Cherie Dimaline and Ayelet Tsabari, where it is forthcoming. Her poetry is forthcoming in Best Canadian Poetry 2018 and her writing has appeared in venues such as Quill & Quire, Vallum, The Puritan, CV2, Room, The Capilano Review, and Canadian Literature. She is an editor for Metatron Press and the Canadian Women in the Literary Arts. In April 2018, she founded the Intersections Reading Group, a series dedicated to discussing race, gender, and class in writing and in life. Shazia’s first chapbook is Prosopopoeia (Anstruther Press, 2017).