To travel the city, listening—

This is the second post in an ongoing series from guest writer Renée Sarojini Saklikar, Surrey’s first Poet Laureate. Find the first, “Being Laureate,” here.

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At the Olympia Restaurant in Surrey for Sound Thinking 2015
At the Olympia Restaurant in Surrey for Sound Thinking 2015

Friday night, November 28, 2015:

I’m on a Skytrain heading eastbound, Saturday night coming on fast: at Surrey City Centre, instead of my usual trek across the New City Hall plaza, I deke into an alleyway, remembering an old foot-path to the Olympia, legendary Surrey pizzeria. A nine-foot chain fence stops me and a double-back out the lot, and into the roadway of  a drive-thru bank, pausing long enough to change foot-gear: got to get my heels on for a cabaret, after all. The night features multi-genre readers: poetry, prose, spoken word, music, beats, and image projections. Behind us, the glitter of the Olympia sign, one I remember from a few years back.

At Olympia Pizza, home to community karaoke and arts events, including tonight’s literary cabaret: As the new Surrey Poet Laureate I’ve the honour of opening with a poem and some thoughts about Voicing the City/In verse: reading Surrey and the Super Suburb. The cabaret is part one of a two-day event held to help celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Surrey Art Gallery. With over 15 participating poets, novelists and spoken word artists, including a full day symposium with keynote speaker M.G. Vassanji, Surrey’s literary and visual landscape is contemplated and enacted. Readers include the legendary writers Leona Gom and Lakshmi Gill as well as Sadhu Binning and Tom Konyves. Founded in 2008, Surrey Art Gallery’s Sound Thinking symposium is an annual event, bringing together sound and visual artists, curated by Jordan Storm and Phinder Dulai. More information about all the performers and the contextual thinking behind the symposium can be found on their website.

Saturday, November 29, 2015:

with Phinder Dulai and Jordan Strom, curators of Sound Thinking Symposium 2015
with Phinder Dulai and Jordan Strom, curators of Sound Thinking Symposium 2015

Again, I’m on transit, riding the Skytrain west to east, thinking about my lyric essay introduction to The Revolving City: 51 poems and the Stories Behind Them, (Anvil Press/SFU Public Square), an anthology of B.C. poets edited with acclaimed writer, Wayde Compton. Last night at the cabaret, I shared this fragment, speaking the words into the restaurant at night and today I’m living them, travelling Vancouver to Surrey: “ To live in the city, is to experience dichotomoy: east/west, alone/together: architecture as exploration of class, ecology as a means of production.”

At the Surrey Art Gallery (I’ve treated myself to a cab ride, and in the taxi, the driver asks me about my writing and tells me how he likes to read ghazals in Urdu): I’m late and sit at the back of a large room where up at the front, M.G. Vassanji delivers his address. He’s won two Giller prizes, the Governor General’s Prize for non-fiction and a Canada Council Molson Prize for the Arts, so his soft-spoken examination of resistance to main stream “pressure” to conform grabs my interest. Vassanji asks a question that animates my life-long work: “what do we mean by Canadian?” He explores potential linkages between “The Other” in Canadian literature and suburbia, and shares thoughts on how “mainstream/establishment” ideas of quality in literature can be seen in juxtaposition to what might be thought of as “margin/al” and I’m reminded of that old Italian political slogan, the margins are at the centre.

Vassanji urges us to be true in our work, to define our own territory, reminding us that those who “come from nowhere, put nowhere on the map” by doing the work. He adds, “sometimes you have to sound confrontational to create momentum; you need passion, attitude and perhaps madness, you have a vision and that helps you to produce.” I write his words down, delighted to be seated among Surrey artists and writers, listening—

at the Surrey Museum w Heidi Greco and Meghan Savage
at the Surrey Museum with Heidi Greco and Meghan Savage

What do poets and writers outside of Surrey think of these ruminations? I’d love to hear from you at poetlaureate@surrey.ca

p.s. Many thanks to League members for their kind words on my appointment and their interested questions on the nature of the tenure: to date, I’ve held two full booked “ Second-Friday-of-the-Month manuscript consultations,” with writers from Surrey and across the Lower Mainland. As well, as promised, I’ve been meeting with representatives of the arts and cultural partner groups that helped establish the Poet Laureate position: we’re planning a series of literary and community events for the coming year. And, I’ve been collaborating with the amazing Dr. Aislinn Hunter, and her colleagues at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU): we’re planning a course that will involve youth to community outreach in Surrey, via poetry workshops. You can read a student reporter’s piece about the Surrey Poet Laureate here.

A highlight of my recent activities: In early December, on CBC Radio’s Early Edition, in front of a 150 plus live studio audience, I was invited to read a poem that embodied the theme of grace. This was for the annual Food Bank donation drive: I chose to read a poem by League member Heidi Greco from her beautiful book Rattlesnake Plantain (Anvil Press, 2002), in honour of Heidi’s research work and advocacy for a Surrey poet laureate. Later that afternoon, along with Surrey Librarian Meghan Savage, I met Heidi at the Surrey Museum where we brainstormed poetry events with enthusiastic staff.

Happy holidays to all of you.  I will write again in 2016—

 

Till then, I remain, and faithfully, writing the life-long poem, chronicle, thecanadaproject.

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Renée Sarojini Saklikar writes thecanadaproject, a life-long poem chronicle that includes poetry, fiction, and essays. Work from the project is widely published in journals, anthologies and chapbooks. The first completed book from thecanadaproject is children of air india, un/authorized exhibits and interjections, (Nightwood Editions, 2013) winner of the 2014 Canadian Authors Association Award for poetry and a finalist for the 2014 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Award. Trained as a lawyer at the University of British Columbia, with a degree in English Literature, Renée was called to the British Columbia Bar in 1991.  A graduate of The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University, Renée is currently a mentor and instructor for the university and co-founder of a new poetry reading series, Lunch Poems at SFU. In September 2015, with acclaimed author Wayde Compton, Renée co-edited The Revolving City: 51 Poems and the Stories Behind Them (Anvil Press/SFU Public Square). Renée serves as an advocate on the national council of The Writer’s Union of Canada and is at work on the second volume of thecanadaproject, excerpts of which can be found in the journals Eleven Eleven, The Capilano Review and online at DUSIE and The Rusty Toque.  Renée is working on a sequence of bee poems based on her collaboration with well-known biologist, Dr. Mark Winston. On October 20, 2015, Renée was appointed Poet Laureate for the City of Surrey. She is a member of the League of Canadian Poets.