Sheniz Janmohamed is a freelance writer, poet and spoken word artist. She is the founder and president of Ignite Poets, a spoken word youth initiative that promotes peace and social awareness through poetry.
Her first book, Bleeding Light (TSAR), released in September 2010, is a collection of Sufi-inspired ghazals that explore the complex, nuanced and ever-changing relationship between the lover and the Beloved. It will be taught on the syllabi at the University of Toronto and York University in 2011-2012.
Sheniz conducted blackcoffeepoet.com’s first video poetry workshop.
BCP: Why did you start writing poetry?
SJ: Because it felt natural to me, whether I was painting, dancing or writing, art was the best way for me to express myself.
BCP: What is your writing process?
SJ: It depends on what I’m writing. If I’m writing a spoken word piece, it may come out all at once. If I’m writing a ghazal, I’ll probably write it a couplet or a few couplets at a time. If it is a novel or a short story, I write it in fragments. Re-writing is a huge part of my writing process, except for spoken word. Spoken word is rarely re-written.
BCP: Who are your favourite writers?
SJ: There are too many to name! A few favourites at the moment: Bulleh Shah, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Carl Sandburg, Jorge Luis Borges…the list goes on!
BCP: Explain the title of your book: Bleeding Light.
SJ: Bleeding Light is an oxymoron. How can a person “bleed” light? The title harkens to the idea of becoming so infused with light that we no longer bleed blood, we bleed light.
BCP: Much of your poetry infuses your spirituality. Did you fear that this would turn some readers away?
SJ: No. There are many reasons for a reader to be turned off, but that’s the beauty of poetry. You read what speaks to you.
BCP: In the final poem of your book you write, “The page is a prayer mat.” Has it always been this way for you?
SJ: Yes, but more so in the writing of Bleeding Light. It was an act of prayer in its entirety, a healing process in itself. The page became my only refuge and savior during that time.
BCP: Why did you choose to write in the ghazal form?
SJ: Dionne Brand introduced me to the form in English, and suggested that I use it often to help develop and refine my writing style. The ghazal form is a portal to my ancestral heritage, and allows me to connect to that part of my history while writing in my mother tongue of English.
BCP: You were involved in the spoken word world for a while. Why did you transition to the written word?
SJ: I don’t see it as a transition. Both the written word and the spoken word are active components of my literary life. I started writing poetry long before I even knew what spoken word was! I still perform spoken word in schools across the GTA, and have had many spoken word gigs in the last few weeks, so spoken word is still a very strong aspect of who I am. I occupy both worlds simultaneously.
BCP: You are working on your second collection now. What have you learned since your first collection? How do you think you have grown as a poet?
SJ: The second book I’m writing is a short story collection, so it is a very new space for me to be in. I think that each book has its own learning curve. I’ve grown more comfortable with the idea of being an “author”, and have learned how to promote my book without being too aggressive. As for growing as a poet, I haven’t written a poem (and by that, I mean, a good one) since the book was published. My focus right now is narrative writing.
BCP: You are a graduate of an MFA in Creative Writing program. What were the benefits and hindrances of the program in terms of your writing? Do you recommend such programs?
SJ: There are certain professors/authors/peers who may have a completely different aesthetic than you. This can be beneficial because it forces you to think outside of your own literary aesthetic. However, you have to choose which advice to listen to and which advice to disregard.
I was lucky with the program because I had mentors who encouraged my writing and made it stronger. I also had access to some of the best literary minds in Canada. Choosing a good program that encourages a variety of creative approaches is important. The last thing you want is to come out of the program with a voice that isn’t your own.
BCP: You work for your local arts council. Has being surrounded by art brought you closer to your art form?
SJ: Yes and no. It helps me to understand what goes into promoting, nurturing and fostering the arts, and has given me opportunities to showcase my skills, but at the same time, I have less time to write my book- I’m slowly learning how to balance my own writing time with the time I give to promoting and nurturing the arts– both of which are crucial.
BCP: You were published by a small publisher. Small publishers and independent bookstores are dying every month. How do you see this affecting poetry?
SJ: The bigger presses have more clout, resources and money, so it’s incredibly difficult to get a smaller press in the limelight, unless you’ve been given the title of the “underdog”.
There’s also a certain kind of literary aesthetic that is being promoted and pushed into the mainstream, one which I don’t easily fit into. Poetry is already a niche market, so being published by a small press and being a poet is twice as challenging.
However, I think that the great thing about small presses is that they have faith in their writers. They choose to take a risk based on the literary merit of the book, rather than its ability to generate revenue. I think that’s incredibly vital. It also forces authors to promote their own books and become more active participants in their book campaigns- which is heartening to readers.
BCP: With people having much shorter attention spans these days do you see poetry having a comeback?
SJ: It depends. If poetry becomes more self indulgent, navel-gazing, academic and unreflective of the diversity of this country, then I doubt that the average Canadian will care about poetry. But if the book industry supports dynamic new voices from a wide spectrum of communities, cultures and backgrounds, then perhaps it has a fighting chance.
I read an article in the New York Observer that began with this powerful line: “If you really want to understand Occupy Wall Street, you have to talk to the poets.”
It seems that we are reclaiming our place in the public sphere, particularly when it comes to creating awareness and change in our communities and society at large. In the words of Shelley, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
BCP: During our interview you had an old Robert Frost book with you. Do you prefer the real book to the E-Book? Do you see the E-Book benefiting or hindering poetry?
SJ: I personally like touching, feeling and reading real books. Something is lost in the E-Book. There is no marginalia.
Reading an E-book has no history. It’s generic. I don’t like that element to the E- Book, and while I understand that it might be more convenient, it’s just not my cup of tea. However, I see the benefit if books are not available to purchase in print in other countries, or if we are actively trying to reduce our use of paper products.
BCP: What advice do you have for young writers?
SJ: Do your research. Read a lot. Trust your voice. Find a mentor. Don’t give up.
Submit, submit, submit!
Tune into BlackCoffeePoet.com Friday October 28, 2011 for a video of Sheniz Janmohamed reading from her book “Bleeding Light”.