Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

TTQ's Toronto Poets 5 Questions Series: Sheniz Janmohamed

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TTQ's Toronto Poets 5 Questions Series: Sheniz Janmohamed

Interviewed by Darryl Salach (The Toronto Quarterly)

The Toronto Poets - 5 Questions Series is a new series initiated by The Toronto Quarterly that is geared to providing the talented poets living and writing in the city of Toronto with a bit of a broader platform in which to explain who they are as poets and what they're writing about these days. The hope is to provide this information to not only lovers of poetry residing in the city but to the casual reader of poetry who might not be aware of some of the names being featured in the five questions series. Ultimately, the hope of this series is to inform Torontonians that poetry is indeed vibrant, alive and kicking ass in our city.

Sheniz Janmohamed is a freelance writer, poet and spoken word artist. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph, and an Honours BA in Religion and English from the University of Toronto. She has written for a variety of magazines including South Asian Living and Anokhi and has had the pleasure of interviewing a variety of talented artists including Booker Prize Nominee Mohsin Hamid, critically acclaimed actress Seema Biswas and musical maestro, Nitin Sawhney. Her work has also been published in the Hart House Review, the UC Review and Asian American Female Poets Anthology: Yellow as Turmeric; Fragrant as Cloves.

She is the founder and president of Ignite Poets, a spoken word youth initiative that promotes peace and social awareness through poetry. She has performed at various venues across Toronto, including the Strong Words Reading Series, Masala! Mehndi! Masti!, Majlis Arts’ Figure of Speech series and the Mini Shebang High School Tour. She has also completed a manuscript of ghazals in English under the mentorship of the late Kuldip Gill (UBC). Two of her ghazals have been musically composed by classical singer, Tanya Jacobs. Sheniz is also collaborating with international dub/electronica artists including State of Bengal, Mahisha Empire and The Mosienko Project.

TTQ- When did poetry first become a prominent part of your life and why did you decide poetry was the best platform for expressing yourself?

SJ- I can’t recall the exact moment, but I remember being around 13 and thinking, “I want to be a writer.” I wrote and doodled a lot when I was a child, and referred to my poems as “polems”.

When I was in high school, I didn’t fit in. I was the girl in the cafeteria who spent her time writing and drawing. I found solace in the page, and began writing song lyrics and rhyming poetry (which, I realized later, was spoken word). I used my poetry to defend myself against people who misunderstood and ridiculed me. A lot of that work is still relevant, and I still perform some of it.

TTQ- You have said that Poet- Kuldip Gill, who recently passed away, was a mentor to you. How did the mentoring you received from Kuldip Gill influence you in the way you express yourself through your poetry?

SJ- I took a poetry workshop with Dionne Brand (Toronto’s current Poet Laureate), and she encouraged me to explore the ghazal form. The ghazal is a poetic form dating back to 7th century Persia and consists of many formalistic aspects, including couplets with refrains. Ghazals are often sung in Urdu, Hindi and Farsi (and other languages), and the audience is directly engaged in the performance, often knowing when to repeat the refrain, or shouting out their amazement and appreciation when the singer concludes a brilliant couplet.

I studied Kuldip Gill’s English ghazals and requested her to be my mentor for our summer project (which required us to write a mini-manuscript in our preferred genre under the guidance of a mentor). Although the project was meant to be creative in nature, Kuldip insisted that I study the ghazal form extensively and write a research paper before writing ghazals. I am so grateful to her for making me undertake the academic study of ghazals because it gave me a stronger understanding of the nature of ghazal writing. Kuldip was very encouraging and receptive- when I sent her a new ghazal, she responded with her comments and suggestions within 24 hours (she was in BC, and I was in Toronto).

She taught me how to get at the heart of expression instead of circling around it. This is crucial for the ghazal form because each couplet has to contain imagery, a sense of longing, and a kernel of wisdom. Sartre spoke of this essence of expression in Nausea, “to rid the passing moments of their fat, to twist them, dry them, purify myself, harden myself, to give back at last the sharp, precise sound of a saxophone note."

Having a mentor who was very familiar with the ghazal and its historical/cultural implications was vital for me because she allowed me to ‘run free’ with my creativity.

TTQ- Would you consider yourself a spoken word artist first or a poet-activist or simply a writer who is socially aware of her surroundings? Do you think it's important that modern day poets write about the injustices around them? In your opinion is that kind of writing missing for the most part from poets of today?

SJ- I don’t think I can choose a label for myself—Trying to pin down what kind of writer I am is difficult because I wear so many hats. At the moment, I’m rehearsing for performances, writing a Sufi-inspired novel, editing my non-fiction essays and polishing my ghazals for print. I think every writer is aware of his/her surroundings—how they interpret those surroundings is style. There are many poets who are speaking out against injustice and violence. Some poets are more vocal and blatant than others. If every poet wrote about injustice in the same way, people would stop listening. The variation of voices is what makes literature so appealing. For example, I listen to Saul Williams and read Derek Walcott. They are both political, but in very different ways.

I write from my heart, whether I’m writing about war or a willow tree in the backyard. It’s what ever strikes me at any given moment. Each writer has a calling, or a topic that they continually come back to. For me, it may be to draw attention to injustice, to infuse spirituality into spoken word- and many other ‘callings’ I have yet to discover. Perhaps what is missing from poets today is not just what they are saying, but how they are saying it. Crafting the word is just as important as the word itself.

TTQ- You are the founder and president of, Ignite Poets. What is your mission statement with your organization and how can other poets get involved?

SJ- Ignite Poets was established in 2003 and its aim is to provide opportunities for young poets, musicians and spoken word artists to collaborate and creatively work together for peace and partnership. In September 2009, I traveled to Nairobi, Kenya to establish its Kenyan branch. With the guidance and support of fellow poets Muki Garang, Pepe Haze and Dennis Dancan Mosiere, we organized a show of Kenyan poetry, music and spoken word. The show, Ignite Poets: Two Nations, One Flame, was held at the Alliance Francaise De Nairobi on October 7th, 2009.

Featured poets included Maik Kwambo, Wanjiku Mwaura, Kennet B, Moses Omondi (Pillars of Kibera), Ritongo Afrika, Joshua Muraya (Storymoja) and many more. The proceeds from the ticket sales were donated to the Hawkers Market Girls Centre in Parklands, Nairobi. The Hawkers Market Girls Centre is a partner with the Kenya Girl Guides Association and trains young underprivileged women in various skills including computer literacy, basic accounting and entrepreneurship. The girls from the HMGC performed for the first time at Ignite Poets: Two Nations, One Flame, reciting a poem written by one of their peers, Carolyne, entitled “Unity and Diversity”. The topics covered at Ignite Poets: Two Nations, One Flame included government accountability, the post-election violence in Kenya, women’s empowerment and hope for Africa’s future and its next generation.

Other poets can email Ignite with their questions, comments and suggestions:

TTQ- What projects are you currently working on and should we expect a book/cd of your poetry any time soon?

SJ- My first book, Bleeding Light, a collection of poems in ghazal form, will be published by TSAR in Fall 2010. Bleeding Light is a collection of poems in ghazal form that traces the steps of a woman’s journey through night. She knows that in order to witness dawn, she has to travel through dusk first. Throughout her journey, she is caught between West and East, religion and heresy, love and anti-love, darkness and the knowledge of light. Each couplet is an independent thought and reflection, a pearl strung into a necklace. Bleeding Light is fraught with opposing, stark and often violent imagery heavily influenced by Sufi philosophy.

For more information on Bleeding Light, visit here.
For more information on Sheniz, visit here

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This interview was first published in The Toronto Quarterly blog.

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