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Last Modified: December 2, 2022
Uche Umezurike interviews Shazia Hafiz Ramji
Uche Umezurike interviews Shazia Hafiz Ramji

author image courtesy of the author

Shazia Hafiz Ramji’s writing has recently appeared in C Magazine and The Capilano Review, and is forthcoming in The Malahat Review, the 2022 Montreal International Poetry Prize anthology, and the Literary Review of Canada. Shazia is the author of Port of Being, a book of poems drawn from field recordings and overheard conversations to reclaim the author’s experience of being stalked. Shazia lives in Vancouver and Calgary, where she is at work on a novel.

Uche Umezurike: port of being emerged out of difficult personal circumstances. I like how it engages with global capitalism and invisible labour, digital/human networks, and surveillance technologies. What is the one thing that surprised you during the writing of the book?

Shazia Hafiz Ramji: The most surprising thing was the synchronicity I experienced while writing the book. As you may know, port of being was written during and after being stalked by someone who stole my stuff (and who still continues to stalk me, despite my various moves back and forth across the country). However, before this happened, I had become remarkably obsessed with surveillance technologies and how they shape our social relations and movement in the city, so it felt as though my book was a preparation of sorts for dealing with very difficult events that came after. I think this book saved my life if I can say so without sounding dramatic. The process of writing it led me to recognize and trust my intuition in a major way. Since then, I’ve always done what feels right. If it doesn’t feel right, I don’t do it.

I am curious to hear your thoughts on the poet’s role in society, given the times we live in— climate change, mass die-offs of animals, racial violence, neo-fascism, and the escalating waves of refugees.

I said recently in an interview with Poetry in Voice that “a poet’s job is the same as everybody else’s job: to live fully and deeply, and to teach yourself and others how to live.” I believe this deeply. If we live by what we stand for, then the rest falls into place.

port of being captures in part the poet’s interactions with urban life, offering us glimpses of the flaneuse. Do you think there is a particular way you approach the city as a poet? Might there be differences between how a poet and a non-poet experience the city?

What a fascinating question! I’m finding this question difficult to answer, because I don’t know if poets and non-poets experience cities differently. I admit I’ve wished I could see the city through the eyes of an urban planner or a surveyor. I love that spatial, architectural perspective. I love infrastructure and logistics! But I’m also someone who’s attuned to sound and other uncanny things, so my approach to the city began with field recordings and overheard conversations, letting those snippets of sound guide my path, rather than the grid of the city and its established routes. I think my experience of the city as a poet was closer to how a tourist or a non-poet might experience it, because I was experiencing Vancouver newly in the writing of port of being, even though it’s been home for a long time now.

City-walking in Calgary, where I also live, has been a vastly different experience. I find myself drawn to parts of the city based on stories by Calgary-based writers like Jaspreet Singh and Kit Dobson. Calgary feels like a bigger place than Vancouver in terms of size, but less dense when it comes to housing and people. I’ve been gravitating towards quiet places in Calgary, so I often find myself by the river and by Fort Calgary, which is the opposite of where I feel most comfortable in Vancouver: anonymously wandering among thousands of people. The solitude I’ve managed to find in Calgary lends itself to much longer lines of poetry, much longer poems.

There are references to streets and neighbourhoods in Vancouver. What does place mean for you, Shazia?

I’m really privileged and grateful to be able to call Vancouver “home.” It might be surprising to hear that I didn’t think of street names and references deliberately when I was writing port of being. In hindsight, I think that means that I’ve accepted Vancouver as home, despite having spent my childhood elsewhere (Kenya, England). I can’t remember who said this, but another writer had said that you know you’re at home when you know the names of the streets and the plants and the bugs around you. It’s like a different language. However, I say “home” with reservation since I’m aware of my contentious positionality as an immigrant on the unceded lands of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples—but I also mean “home” sincerely.

Some poems respond to official maritime discourse, especially in “Flags of Convenience.” What made you decide to use intertext?

The limits of poetry against fact made me use intertext. When I was deep in research about this, I really felt that I was against a limit of what poetry can do – of what I could say as a poet. Words felt so inadequate—the way they do when in the grip of loss and grief. Poetry can transform how we think about things, but it can also draw attention to the reality of our world. I leaned towards the latter in this case, because I felt that the facts themselves were powerful. I no longer think poetry and fact are in opposition to each other.

I guess Solmaz Sharif and Dionne Brand are among your favourite poets. Are there other poets who have also influenced your poetry?

Solmaz and Dionne were by my side throughout! As were Stephen Collis and Kaveh Akbar. Both Stephen and Kaveh have a tenderness and clarity that I really admire. Their work isn’t ascetic and doesn’t take them away from the world. It’s engaged and brave and right here. Their poems have a wholehearted and open-hearted stance towards the world. I feel very glad that they exist. Otoniya Okot Bitek is also really important to me. Before my book came out, I remember feeling disillusioned, as if I didn’t want to put out my book. She told me a story that Dionne once told her, one about joy, which I will not repeat here. Otoniya is also someone whose voice is so clear in her poems. I think of her and her words when I’m blocked or when I feel a little lonely. I could get into these poets’ craft to discuss influence, but I think what’s more important is how their work makes me feel (and how that changes me). That’s worthy of being of an influence too.

There is this line in “Secret Playground” where a stranger asks the poet, “Are you really clean, though?” It got me thinking about Moshin Hamid’s article in The Guardian about the links between purity and nationalism. Can you say a little more about the poem?

Uche, before we get into this question, thank you for interviewing me about port of being. This October it’ll have been four years since the book first came out, though it feels like it was quite recent! I’m grateful for the chance to revisit my work with someone as generous, talented, and as understanding as yourself.

“Secret Playground” in particular has been interpreted so differently over the years; it’s been quite surprising! I love that it reminded you of Hamid’s article about purity and nationalism. I was definitely thinking of the Gulf War, having been stuck in it when I was a baby (but of course, I’m a poet, so I remember everything, including the false memory of little me eating M&Ms during the war, ha-ha! It’s false because it would not have been possible for me to eat solid foods like M&Ms at that time). The question that you’ve quoted, “Are you really clean, though?” has to do with my recovery from several addictions. When I read this poem publicly, I always add “I hadn’t done any drugs,” after that line, because people interpret “clean” differently. Until your mind-blowing question now, I hadn’t drawn a connection between “clean,” nationalism and purity, but I’m keen to revisit my work and think about it through this lattice, especially since themes of war and migration have definitely surfaced in my new work… Now that I think of it, addiction is a kind of self-imposed dispossession in many ways.

Thank you very much, Shazia. It’s always a richly rewarding experience chatting with you. I look forward to your forthcoming work.

Talking with you always makes me think differently! I hope we’ll get a chance to chat again further, Uche. I’m really looking forward to your forthcoming book of poetry, there’s more, in March 2023. I think fondly of the conversations we’ve had and the overlapping ways we both think about migration, home and belonging.

Uche Umezurike is an assistant professor of English at the University of Calgary. An alumnus of the International Writing Program (USA), Umezurike is a co-editor of Wreaths for Wayfarers, an anthology of poems. He is the author of Wish Maker (Masobe Books, 2021) and Double Wahala, Double Trouble (Griots Lounge Publishing, 2021). His poetry collection, there’s more, is forthcoming from the University of Alberta Press.

Port of Being

Shazia Hafiz Ramji (CA)

Published: Oct 15, 2018 by Invisible Publishing
ISBN: 9781988784120
Double Wahala, Double Trouble

Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike (CA)

Published: Nov 26, 2021 by Griots Lounge Publishing Canada
ISBN: 9781777688400
there’s more

Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike

Published: Mar 06, 2023 by The University of Alberta Press
ISBN: 9781772126808