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An Interview with Manahil Bandukwala

For National Poetry Month, Manahil Bandukwala, the author of the chapbook, Pipe Rose, talks to Shazia Hafiz Ramji about her second chapbook, Paper Doll, published by Anstruther Press.


Shazia Hafiz Ramji:
How does it feel to have a new chapbook?

Manahil Bandukwala:
I love chapbooks! As an emerging writer, they’re a very comfortable place to have writing consolidated. With the limited runs that chapbooks have, it’s also cool that they inhabit this liminal space that reflects who I am as a writer. I definitely see a lot of growth from Pipe Rose to Paper Doll, as well as a continuation of things that I wanted to expand on.

I also love how artistic chapbooks are. Paper Doll, for example, has this beautiful silver-speckled paper inside. Presses like Coven, Bird, buried, and Baseline go all-out with making art forms through chapbooks.

SHR: Tell us about the cover?

MB: The idea of the upside-down building came from the Western Air Temples in Avatar: the Last Airbender. The crumbling façade of that architecture fit with the idea of crumbling I explore in a lot of the poems, especially the last one, “Water molecules never move the way we think they do.”

I used watercolours for the cover, and that means a lot to me as an artist. I’ve never really been comfortable with watercolour, and last used it almost five years ago for my O Levels. I considered going with something more bold, which is the typical art style I lean towards, but that’s not really representative of my poetry. Seeing the cover in print makes me really happy that I decided to take that leap.

SHR: How did you arrive at the title?

MB: I actually thought of the title long before I started putting the chapbook together, which is the opposite of how I usually come up with titles. It was one of the potential titles I came up with for my first chapbook, Pipe Rose. It didn’t fit the poems or tone of that chapbook, but I was drawn to the theme of puppetry, fragility, and manipulation. When I started putting Paper Doll together, I had this title, and the poems seemed to just fall into it. As I started to put the manuscript together, I became interested in including the underlying strength beneath the crumbling. The image of the paper doll really helped me pull that thought into cohesion in the chapbook.

In another line of thought, my first and last names are really long and are pretty heavy on the syllables. For the work I produce, I prefer to keep the titles short and snappy, which is something I found when coming up with a title for my first chapbook.

SHR: What was the editorial process like?

MB: The editorial process was great! I was quite nervous, because Anstruther is a pretty big chapbook press and has published quite a lot of big names. The editor for my first chapbook, Natalie Hanna, was someone I knew, and since she’s based in Ottawa, we met up to edit Pipe Rose.

Paper Doll was very different. I had only met Jim Johnstone very briefly at Meet the Presses in Toronto. But I could not be happier with how the editing experience went and how the chapbook turned out. Jim was very open to me changing the manuscript I submitted, so I felt comfortable adding in new work and taking out poems I felt didn’t fit.

Jim definitely took a lot of care to make each poem strong. With “What happens when four tongues collide,” he pushed for multiple rounds of edits. I think this brought out a lot of what was missing in the original poem, and pushed me to go beyond familiar metaphors. The poem as it appears in Paper Doll is definitely much stronger than the first version that was in the manuscript.

SHR: Who are your influences?

MB: Everything and everyone. Some of my favourite poets to read for inspiration are Ayesha Chatterjee, Conyer Clayton, Sanna Wani, Natalie Wee, Puneet Dutt, Klara du Plessis, Ashley Hynd, Safia Elhillo, and other names that are escaping me right now. I actually wrote a lot of Paper Doll while reading Ayesha’s book, Bottles and Bones. Puneet, Conyer, and Natalie’s work is really inspiring for a new project I’m working on.

I’m also really inspired by the work of artists. My sister, Nimra, does a lot of surreal and detailed art, which is a great inspiration for writing. One of her paintings, an imagined streetscape of Anarkali Bazaar in Lahore, was the inspiration for my poem “Anarkali.” Nimra also introduced me to the work of illustrator Shaun Tan. “Paper Boat” from my chapbook is inspired by Tan’s work.

SHR: What are you working on right now?

MB: I’m currently working on a multidisciplinary project with my sister, Nimra. It involves sculptures and storytelling. We started out making miniature sculptures of imagined worlds such as the Shire. We collected materials from our backyard, from hikes, and from parks in Mississauga, and used those to build these little worlds. One of the worlds, “Lal Palang,” is an interpretation of a lullaby our mother used to sing to us. This sparked our interest in making sculptures out of other Pakistani stories.

The best part of this project is being able to work collaboratively with someone who really knows my artistic process, and vice versa. Nimra and I are very in-tune with each other’s thoughts, and we each bring our own strengths to the table. Nimra is great at visualizing the composition of a piece, while I enjoy working with the fiddly and minute.

Nimra and I are doing a lot of research in oral storytelling and ethnographic fieldwork. We want to find real stories and songs that are part of communities in our home city of Karachi.

Another fascinating part of the project is the research I’m doing into contemporary Anglophone literature in Pakistan. For example, what are literary magazines such as The Missing Slate, The Aleph Review, and Zau magazine doing? Looking into these magazines is a fun way to branch out from my encounters with the Canadian small press scene.

SHR: How does where you live alter your sense of belonging as a writer?

MB: Living in Ottawa has everything to do with how I’ve developed and grown as a writer. The Ottawa poetry/literary community is incredibly friendly and welcoming. The open mics have been a great space to develop my poetic reading voice. I’m pretty shy and am not super comfortable speaking in front of audiences, but the audiences in Ottawa are always supportive. Sharing work is a very vulnerable experience, so it’s great to have a place where I can feel comfortable sharing it.

SHR: What advice would you give to emerging writers who are hoping to put out a chapbook?

MB: Take your time. Take time to write. Research presses. Have other people read your manuscript. Read chapbooks by other poets.

The last piece of advice is probably the most important, and really influences the others. Putting together a strong chapbook is more than just putting good poems in a manuscript. Collections, whether intentionally or unintentionally, present a narrative. Poems that are seemingly unrelated can come together really well. Seeing what other poets are doing with the chapbook form can help you see the different options for putting poetry together. I find settling on a tone or an image really helpful.

Consider some of the following things when finding a press to submit to. Who are the editors? Who has the press published previously? Where is the press based? How does the press design their chapbooks? Thinking about how much these criteria mean can really help narrow down presses, which makes the process of submitting manuscripts far less intimidating.

I also think it’s really important to have someone else read the manuscript in full. I took the poems in both my chapbooks to writer’s circles and had edited each of them individually, but I also sent the full manuscript to my sister, Nimra. She was able to comment on how poems fit together, and her advice was invaluable in pulling the manuscript together.

For example, with my first chapbook, Pipe Rose, I wanted to submit to an Ottawa-based publisher, and was especially keen on finding a women-of-colour focused press. Battleaxe was a natural fit. It’s published chapbooks by Sanita Fejzic and Conyer Clayton, two people who have been very good mentors and friends to me, so I knew that was a space I really wanted to be a part of. For Paper Doll, I knew I wanted to submit to a GTA-based press, because my parents live in Mississauga and the area is sort of a second home. I liked the design of Anstruther’s chapbooks, as well as the people the press has published, such as Klara du Plessis, Aaron Boothby, Tess Liem, and you.

SHR: Tell us about your favourite publishers and mags!

MB: My favourite presses are ones that have really artistic products. Favourite chapbook presses (aside from Anstruther and battleaxe) include Bird, buried press, Desert Pets Press, Zed Press, Baseline Press, Rahila’s Ghost Press. In addition to the great poets and writers these presses publish, I also really love their designs. Another favourite creative press is Ottawa-based Coven Editions. Coven has made incredibly creative and beautiful chapbooks, broadsides, and bookmarks. Canthius and Room magazine are two great literary magazines.


MANAHIL BANDUKWALA is the author of two chapbooks, Paper Doll (Anstruther Press) and Pipe Rose (battleaxe press). She was the 2019 winner of Room magazine’s Emerging Writer Award. Her work has appeared in magazines such as the Puritan, Room, Coven Editions, Parentheses Journal, Juniper Poetry, and others. She is on the editorial teams of In/Words Magazine and Canthius. See her work on her website, manahils.com.

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