An excerpt from an interview I did with Mark Nowak for the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog a few years ago…
Mark: In your first book, Ragas from the Periphery, you include several poems—such as “The Booth” and “I Work On Your Holy Days”—that directly engage issues of race, labor, and socio-economics in the service sector in direct and unique ways. Can you tell us a bit about these poems and why you felt it necessary to include them in your first collection?
Phinder: I wrote Ragas while working as a parking lot attendant. In fact the whole Ms. was written during my late evening shifts. During that time I attended university in Vancouver and was part of an ad hoc network of culturally diverse writers interested in advocating around themes and issues of race, identity and class and the lack of inclusion in Canada’s literary, publishing and poetry circles. My friend Sadhu Binning introduced me to his work poetry about his life as a Canada Post employee and introduced me to a larger body of work around this emergent genre. What I read adhered to a communal value of how work contributes to the notion of a healthy self and society. But something important was missing for me in that emergent genre that I felt directly linked to the type of work one did, to one’s race, class and ethnicity.
In some ways I felt a kind of co-opting force that would structurally bleach out the space of racialized poetics if I adhered to a pure aesthetic. I began working on a series of poems that placed the subject not within the communal ideal but within the broader power structure and industrial architecture of work; and I wrote about my condition. What I learned from writing Ragas is an emergent poetic around migrancy as a metaphor for a post modern life. As a parallel to that creative process was learning to become a critical thinker. One of the more prescient critical works I was interested in was a translation of the Mikhail Bakhtin’s four essays contained in Michael Holquist and Caryl Emerson’s book The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin. In some ways, working in small quarters (a parking lot booth) allowed me to write a parallel world of poetic constriction where the immigrant is not rendered as a human, but as part of a industrial asset, so in the poem “The Booth,” I employ the normalized tonality of technical language in listing off the various assets of the booth and then morph the list without losing the tone of that language to make a statement about the placement of the living asset(s). As I write and describe this, I see that the reality of the migrant and the poetry of that reality has not lost relevance in 2008; and more than ever, I think that these themes are even greater in context to the global industrial complex and world we live in.
Read the whole interview on the Poetry Foundation website.