& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, December 01, 2013

'My identity depends on who is identifying me (including myself)'

'My identity depends on who is identifying me (including myself)
Therefore, what is really real about me? 
What is inherently me? 
I don’t know.
Maybe nothing.
Maybe everything.'

Interview with Sheniz Janmohamed

In the Sufi Poets Series of events you have created a unique blend of music, poetry and art. What inspired you to start the series?

Three things inspired me to start the series:

The work of Rohail Hyatt, the producer of Coke Studio Pakistan. He is an incredible facilitator of creativity and collaboration and the pieces he produces are transformative and revolutionary – not just for the audience, but for the participants as well.

I have a lot of wonderful friends who are talented artists, writers, poets, musicians, spoken word artists and performers and I always thought, “What if I introduced this person to that person? I wonder what they would come up with!” But in order to do that, I had to create a purpose, and a central theme.

My love for Sufi poetry became that central purpose. I wanted to see how people who have never heard of Bulleh Shah would interpret/connect to his work – and witness that process of discovery. It’s about creating community and provoking creativity. There’s no room for ego. Everyone is working to revive the poetry of a poet who is remains alive through their words, their music. It’s about exposing people to Sufi poetry for its heresy, passion and humanism. And people in the audience feel that energy and bask in it (I hope!)

What is special about the forthcoming Sufi Poets Series?

Sufi Poets Series III: American Sufi is a different format than usual because we’re featuring Anand Mahadevan’s novel of the same title, not a Sufi poet.

In Mahadevan’s words, “American Sufi weaves in elements of Sufi storytelling, sub-continental history, and Urdu poetry to reveal the tragedy of a land and its people rent between their devotion to the pacifist strain of Sufi Islam and the growing clout of Saudi-funded militancy.”

It is the central focus and arching narrative of the evening. Mahadevan will narrate sections of this story and the musicians will support it and respond to it with their voices and instruments. The lyrics and poetry to be sung/performed hail from Pakistan. We’re trying to recreate the feeling of being at a dargah (sufi shrine) but also to follow the journey of a young man who is torn between his life in the West and his sufi calling. It contexualizes the relevance of the sufi message for the post 9/11 world.

Why did you start Ignite Poets?

I started Ignite Poets because I wanted to collaborate with spoken word artists, poets and musicians, not compete with them. When I began the series, most of the poetry events in the city were either slams or open mics. I wanted to create a platform for spoken word artists/poets to speak to each other and with each other through collaboration with performance sets that flowed seamlessly from one piece to the next. Most of Ignite Poets’ previous shows have been scripted/organized poem by poem- I spend a lot of time trying to connect each individual piece with the other so that there is a sense of cohesion – without taking away from each poet’s voice.

Now about your work – ghazals and spoken word: Ghazals and spoken word make for a different sort of combination – while both draw upon personal experiences, the ghazal is a subtle, elusive, indirect form, the spoken word poetry is direct, often brash, in-your-face. Creatively speaking, don’t you find the dichotomy daunting?

I don’t find the dichotomy daunting, and sometimes it doesn’t even feel like a dichotomy.

The spoken word form allows me to be more flexible and creative in how I play with my words. It relies on the performative quality of the poetry and how my voice can amplify the message behind the words. In that sense, spoken word can be ‘direct, often brash, in-your-face’ because of the nature of the form itself – the rhythm, the inflections of voice, the tone and the body language.

However, the ghazal form can also be ‘direct, often brash, in-your-face’ because I’m using a pen name. Using a pen name is liberating because I’m not hiding behind the persona of “Sheniz” and the ego that comes along with it. My pen name, Israh, is the inner voice, which is often harsh and brutally honest. It sometimes forces me to see what I don’t want to see. So while the form of the ghazal is more structured because there are so many rules to abide by (internal rhyming, couplets, repeating/rhyming refrains and pen name), there’s also immense freedom in the content itself. I’m not presenting myself to an audience, I’m presenting myself to myself.

What is the most common comment you get about writing ghazals in English?

I can’t really say there is one- it depends on who I’m speaking to and their knowledge of the form. People who don’t have knowledge of the form normally ask me what it is and what it entails. People who are very familiar with the form are often shocked that the form exists in the English language- some of them assume that I translate existing ghazals, and I have to clarify that I write original ghazals in English. Then the second comment/question I get is “Why don’t you write in Urdu?” I don’t speak Urdu, I don’t write in Urdu. My mother tongue is English and I’m trying to maintain/re-invent the form in this language. To claim it, in a sense.

Sufism inspires you. Sufism is a way of life; it abjures orthodoxy, questions convictions, modulates attitudes and ultimately challenges belief. But it is at variance with the emerging belief systems in a multicultural world where identity is overtly important, especially when one belongs to a minority – ethnic, linguistic, religious, gender. Sufism is antithetical to the notion of identity because it inspires you to lose your identity and become one with divinity. If you agree, how do you reconcile the two elements as an artist?

Identity, for me, is not static. My identity is constantly shifting/evolving/developing. It’s not stagnant nor is it independent of the environment around me. I occupy many labels and identities. Some people refer to me as South Asian. To someone else, I’m a Canadian. My identity depends on who is identifying me (including myself). Therefore, what is really real about me? What is inherently me? I don’t know. Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. Maybe both.

The artist is constantly interacting with the world around him/her in some shape or form. To create the same thing over and over again is artistic death- we’re always looking for something new to inspire and challenge us. We’re constantly shapeshifting, questioning and re-inventing. Questioning our relationship to the world is part of the creative process. 

At the same time, in order to truly give myself to what I write or perform, I have to forget myself. If I start thinking about how I look on stage while I’m performing, I forget my lines. If I start judging myself while I’m writing a poem, I’m no longer writing. The art of creating is letting go of this exoteric notion of identity and embracing the moment the poem unravels, or the words spill out of my mouth.

Time: 7pm
Date: December 7th, 2013
Venue: Beit Zatoun House, 612 Markham Street, Toronto
Ticket price: $15.00

The third installation of the popular Sufi Poets Series, this event will feature musical interpretations, poetic recitations and narrations of Anand Mahadevan's latest novel, "American Sufi", inspired by the music and poetry of Pakistan.

The novel weaves in elements of Sufi storytelling, sub-continental history, and Urdu poetry to reveal the tragedy of a land and its people rent between their devotion to the pacifist strain of Sufi Islam and the growing clout of Saudi-funded militancy.

Performers and musical guests:
  • Anand Mahadevan, Author of American Sufi
  • Jawaid Danish, Urdu poetry
  • Sheniz Janmohamed, Poetry and Spoken word
  • Tariq Hameed, Harmonium and Qawwali vocals
  • Samer Shahid Khan, Guitar and Vocals
  • Ravi Naimpally, Tabla

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