Interview by Ayaz Pirani for Ismailimail:
I’m pleased to profile and interview Sheniz Janmohamed, Writer-in-Residence at University of Toronto, Scarborough (UTSC) from January to April 2022. Her books include Bleeding Light (2010), Firesmoke (2014), and Reminders on the Path (2021). Janmohamed is a poet of keen and gnostic observation, technical aptitude, and wonderful and wondrous images. At times mystical but not obscure, retrograde but not old-fashioned, optimistic but not naive, Janmohamed is a quintessentially contemporary and Canadian poet.
About Sheniz Janmohamed
Sheniz was born and raised in Toronto with ancestral ties to Kenya and Kutch, Gujarat [India]. A poet, nature artist, and arts educator, she regularly visits schools and community organizations to teach and perform. Her nature art has been featured across Turtle Island, including the National Arts Centre and the Art Gallery of Mississauga. She has performed her work in venues across the world including the Jaipur Literature Festival and Alliance Francaise de Nairobi.
A graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph, Janmohamed’s writing has been published in Arc Poetry Magazine, Descant, and Canthius and she is a regular reviewer for Quill & Quire.
A recipient of the Lois Birkenshaw-Fleming Creative Teaching Scholarship, Janmohamed holds an Artist Educator Mentor certification from the Royal Conservatory. She is a firm believer in fostering community through collaboration and creativity. Her three books, all published by Mawenzi House/TSAR Publications, have been signposts in my own writing career. I’ve also especially enjoyed following her work in landart and I expect readers will be equally mesmerized.
Please click on the links above to purchase her books and follow Sheniz on Instagram to see examples of her artwork.
AP: In your new book, Reminders on the Path, the second section is titled ‘Embark’ and another section is titled ‘Re-turn’. I was reminded of the book The Castaway by Derek Walcott, which covers themes of exile and ancestry. What kind of reading informed the writing of your book?
SJ: Thank you so much, what a lovely reminder.
I’m careful not to read too much contemporary poetry too close in theme or style to what I’m trying to write, as it can unintentionally influence metaphors/stylistic approaches to text. Some of the books I kept returning to were non-fiction or hybrid forms. In Times of Terror, Wage Beauty by Mark Gonzales had a significant impact on the kinds of questions I was asking myself during the writing process. I read a lot of Sufi poetry and texts, as well as research on Kutch, which I have never visited.
AP: Your book is wonderfully populated by multi-generational immigrants and I think the voice changes in some poems. Please correct me but I think different people might be speaking. How do you do that in poetry?
SJ: Thank you so much, I really appreciate that observation!
There are a few instances in which the poems are call and response— so I, the descendant, will pose a question and my ancestor, or the future ancestor within me, will respond. It can certainly be challenging to shift voice in poetry, particularly because of the leanness of text. One way that I demonstrate that shift in voice is through italics. It allows for the reader to have a visual cue that the voice is changing. The other technique is to address the ancestor in the poem, through a question— so the reader knows that the next line is the ancestor’s response.
AP: The figure of the ‘path’ is ageless in Eastern traditions, including Indo-Pak ginans and granths, Kabir’s Bijak, the Persian and Urdu poets. In your new book I felt like the path was almost an ethic, a way of making meaning in the world. Is that how it’s working for you?
SJ: In some ways yes, but it’s less about making and more about choosing. If we choose to take a step in one direction, then the path unfurls will unfurl in that direction. The path is each footstep we take in life. It is made by our making. Meaning can be gleaned from the reminders along the path. The reminders are not “bad” or “good”, but simply reminders. A reminder of life’s impermanence could be seen in the image of a broken acorn. A reminder of ancestral support could be felt in the scent of agarbatti [incense]. But the key is, we have to acknowledge these reminders. If we have our heads down, or our gaze is fixated on the future destination, we will fail to notice these reminders.
AP: Tell me about your writing practice. How do you go about writing? When, where?
SJ: I don’t have a particular time when I write, but I do have a process. When I had the idea for this collection, I was visiting my Nanima in Kenya. I spent time asking her questions about her own experience of her ancestors, and at the same time, I was cataloguing names and qualities of trees, plants and flowers in our family garden. Every day, I’d go out into the garden and pay close attention to these “reminders”. I filled a notebook full of questions, images and fragmented poems.
When I returned to Canada, I wrote these reminders, along with images, on individual sticky notes, which I laid out on my floor. I kept adding to the reminders, and then added “path” cards, which moved through the sticky notes. The path cards addressed deeper questions and themes.
From that mind map, I’d choose a sticky note or a handful of sticky notes as inspiration for a poem. Not all of these reminders made it into the book, but they are tucked away for a future book, perhaps.
AP: In Manahil Bandukwala’s review of Reminders on the Path she says, “In Janmohamed’s poems, history is etched into the body and into the land.” In fact, you are a land artist as well as a poet. I believe the cover of your second book, Firesmoke, is an image of your land art. I’ve spent plenty of time admiring your Instagram page, which includes stunning land art pieces. Tell me about your land art. Give me some practical understanding.
SJ: Thank you so much!
As you can see from my previous answer, I have a very structured writing process. My nature art developed as a coping mechanism for my desire for perfection. When I was writing my previous collection, Firesmoke, I spent so much time agonizing over writing a perfect, fully formed poem. I was met, time and time again, with the blank page. So I’d go for walks out in nature, and I started to notice “reminders”. A perfect snail shell, a half eaten cherry, a trampled blossom. I started to pick up these objects, and make patterns and shapes in the environment I was in. I’d take a photo, and then leave the piece behind for others to discover, or for the elements to collaborate with.
My land art practice slowly became its own intuitive arts practice. Oftentimes the materials I have determine what I create. I may not have enough flower petals to make a symmetrical piece, so I have to improvise and use what I have. I don’t have a pre-conceived idea of how a piece will look, I just allow my hands to guide the process.
There are land art pieces I’ve made on windy days, where petals keep flying away and I can’t control the environment around me. It’s frustrating, but within that, there’s an opportunity to adapt to what’s available to me in that moment. I could sit there and curse the wind, or remember that petals flying in the wind is also a reminder.
AP: It might be hard for some, perhaps including myself frankly, to come to grips with the temporary nature of land art. Of course I must be thinking about it the wrong way. Help me.
SJ: I would say that it’s definitely not the wrong way of thinking about it— it’s the more honest, vulnerable way. It can be incredibly difficult to sweep away a creation I’ve made over hours and hours of painstaking work. It’s challenging to leave behind a piece of art that will be destroyed by the wind, or stepped upon by an unknowing walker— but perhaps that’s why it’s such a profound act— it requires one to be intimate with the world’s transience and beauty. It keeps reminding me, over and over again, that nothing lasts forever. That can be a painful realization, yes, but also an opportunity to be more present in my life.
AP: I’m glad to say that you are the 2022 University of Toronto, Scarborough, Writer- in-Residence. Your artistic practice, aside from poetry and land art, also includes education. What is a Writer-in-Residence? What are your roles and duties?
SJ: Thank you. A Writer-in-Residence is a writer who takes up “residency” in an institution or organization, and is given time and resources to work on a new writing project while also serving a community of aspiring writers.
It has been such a joy to serve as the WIR at UTSC. My tenure was a total of three
months (too short!) In my role, I served as an advisor for students who were working on creative writing projects— supporting them in engaging with context, content and intent. I held weekly writing workshops for creative writing students, visited classes and presented workshops, collaborated with other departments and held readings. I was also working and continue to be working on a new writing project, which the UTSC library provided resources for. My final duty as WIR was to hold a keynote lecture on the creative life. The topic of my talk was, How to Write in a Broken World.
It has been such a gift and a pleasure, and I’m still mourning that it’s over!
Ayaz Pirani’s new publication How Beautiful People Are, published by Gordon Hill Press, can be ordered here.