Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Interdisciplinary Arts Conference: PART I

This past weekend, I attended and participated in The Interdisciplinary Arts Conference, held by Wilfrid Laurier University's Religion and Culture Society. My experience with the students and staff of WLU reminded me of the fact that academic institutions can be collaborative, warm and open. We often associate universities with authority, but forget that learning is also interactive.

I first met Helen Reid, President of WLU's Religion and Culture Society, in Meena Sharify-Funk's Islamic Mysticism class. I was conducting a guest lecture on Sufi Poetry, and Helen had a keen interest and understanding of Sufi philosophy. Since then, Helen and I have chatted on the phone, discussing Jung, the state of the world, reality vs. non-reality and of course, the IAC Conference.

Let's just say that Helen knows how to get a job done. Her passion, dedication and chutzpah secured beloved childhood icon, Fred Penner, as the guest of honour for the conference. She also invited sitar maestro, Irshad Khan, to play for the finale concert. I was recruited as the opening act for Irshad Khan.

When I arrived in Waterloo, I was greeted by Professor Meena Sharify-Funk, a true sufi soul, and her beloved family including her bearded collie, Sami. We were invited to Helen and her partner Rob's house for a welcome dinner. Helen and Rob's house is the kind of house you dream of having. Coloured glass vases, tapestries, bookshelves, instruments, artifacts and ornaments from Greece and India, brightly coloured textured walls, windows with intricate stained glass designs-- each room in their house seemed to be transported from another country. I met some lovely people including Zabeen, a fellow Ismaili who had just returned from India, stylish Laura, Vice President of the Religion and Culture Society, and Fred Penner, who was frantically looking for a pouch he had left behind in rehearsal.

After the croissants were eaten, the homemade calamari was consumed and the pouch was found, we sat around Penner and discussed our childhoods, the pressures on youth today, spirituality and activism. Helen spoke about the sacred circles in Sufism, likening them to the dance of the universe. Penner spoke of himself as an anarchist, stating that artists are anarchists, because they see the world for what it is and refuse to accept the status quo (I hardly think he was referring to himself as the kind of anarchist that wears all black and spray paints government properties and corporate buildings).

The next day, Saturday, was a day of seminars, presentations and performances. Helen presented her paper on Sufism, her voice heightening with excitement and newfound revelations. At the end of the presentation, she played a youtube clip of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing a qawwali. A lady stood up from her seat and began to whirl.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011



Kuldip Gill was an award-winning poet, professor and mentor based in BC. She had an elegance and class about her that was so charming it was hard to ignore. Kuldip mentored me for my MFA summer thesis, a project that eventually became my first book-- Bleeding Light.

The first and only time we met was a sunny day in Toronto. We agreed to meet at the hotel she was staying at. When I greeted her in the lobby, her pure white hair and tasteful red lipstick proved to me that you can be beautiful at any age. She was the epitome of grace. We had a coffee at the hotel cafe, brainstorming about the etymology of words and the structure of ghazals. We had a buffet lunch at an Indian restaurant and returned to the hotel so she could change for the book launch we planned to attend in the evening. Dressed in black with a subdued but intricately designed Kashmiri shawl, Kuldip apologized for making me wait for so long in the lobby (in truth, the wait was quite short). After the book launch, I offered to catch her a cab, but she insisted that she would be okay. She was independent, strong and resilient.

Kuldip was one of the first Canadian poets to experiment with the ghazal form in English. She insisted that before I could write a ghazal, I needed to research the form. She taught me to respect and study the tradition and then formulate my own poetic voice. It was one of the most valuable lessons I've learned as a writer.

Throughout the summer, we communicated via email. We exchanged comments on my ghazals and she sent me her own poetry, asking me for my opinion. It was a rewarding process, intellectually challenging and creatively stimulating. She responded to my edits within a day, always with positive and useful feedback.

Kuldip passed away before Bleeding Light was published. I was shocked and stunned. I had no idea she was ill, and didn't know how to deal with her death. The only way I could honour her was to dedicate my book to her memory.

I ordered Valley Sutra, the last book she wrote before she died, and read it cover to cover. In between the free verse poems, I found a handful of ghazals. I felt connected to her through the couplets, through the fact that a part of me stayed with her, and a part of her will always stay with me.

Our whole lives,
by this flowing river.
Our whole lives
flowing -- by this river.

Kuldip Gill, Valley Sutra

In Memoriam.

Friday, March 4, 2011

For our Youth

There is a polarization happening in the world today-- of those who seek democracy and freedom (in their purest, non political manifestations) and those who want to deny people of freedom and democracy.

Take the recent protests in the Middle East. It's encouraging to see citizens standing up and calling for the resignation of their corrupt governments. It's reassuring to see that Wisconsin and Egypt are tied by the mutual desire for accountability and democracy, despite cultural divides and the miles of ocean between them.

And then, there is the recent violence in Pakistan. A minority Christian minister is gunned down mercilessly in his car, leaving minorities in Pakistan without a voice to defend them. And right here in North America, there are hate-mongering protestors in Orange County, yelling for American-born Muslims to "GO HOME!" at a fundraiser for relief work in the U.S.

It seems as though the balance could tip either way. The global consciousness is at a saturation point- we can either make the choice to be accountable for our actions and firmly stand for peace, freedom and the rights of all living creatures (including animals and ecosystems) or we can allow ourselves to be silenced by violence, hatred and war.

The good news is that more and more people are refusing to swallow garbage the media tries to feed them. They're looking to alternative sources to understand all sides of a situation. But this number has to increase, especially among impressionable youth. The future is theirs. If they continue to numb themselves with Jersey Shore, XBOX and celebrity culture, our planet will be left to fend for itself. Which is why each one of us has to take the future into our own hands. Youth are impressionable but they are also very intelligent and observant. It just takes a little encouragement and a dose of reality for them to become impassioned about a cause. I've seen it with my own eyes, in classrooms across Toronto. They have it in them, and it's up to us to help them find it.

For our youth, for our future.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Being an Author

When my first book was published, I thought, "Finally! I'm an author." The novelty wore off after about a month, when it dawned on me that I couldn't live off my words and that I'd have to find another way to make my riches. When you put every ounce of blood into a piece of work and realize that it cannot sustain you the way you sustained it-- that is when the harsh reality sets in. The reality that in this day and age, there are thousands upon thousands of writers and poets, millions of books and yours is just a drop in a very big ocean.

So how do you live? How do you work towards this passion of being a writer without giving in to the pressures of modern day life? I was asked quite recently how I intend to make a living for myself. Perhaps I'm completely insane, but I thought, "Spoken Word/Freelance Writing". Really? Really. I'm going to buy a house and take vacations to the Far East with the money I make from performing and writing. Or not. Or I'll just be a middle aged lady who still lives at home and apparently wrote a book once upon a time.

People say, "Get a normal job! Work for a company!" Yes, let me work for a company that has no social conscience and then write about revolution and saving our planet from the destructive forces of capitalism. You see, the problem with making a living is that it's very hard to make a living without killing someone else's livelihood (karma, look it up).

So I'm stuck, I'm stuck in a position where if I don't have a gig that pays substantially every week, there is no way in hell that I'll have a career. And because I'm so stubborn in my opposition to working for the 'man', I'm going to have to muster enough courage and strength and business knack to work for myself. But as most of us know, writers are a self-deprecating lot.

We often take gigs that don't pay, undercharge or simply let opportunities pass us by, because sometimes it's too much. It's too much to have opportunities that require time and effort away from writing and creating-- opportunities that don't lead to full time writing positions or a paycheque every week/month. When it becomes so overwhelming, where do we turn?

"Become a brand!" I'm told. A brand that recites spoken word, writes english ghazals, pens half finished novels, edits original creative essays. How do you brand someone who has more than one creative personality? Do we choose from an array of who we could be and choose to be just one? But how can we deny ourselves of our full potential? And yet, whenever I post my spoken word pieces, links to events, book promotional materials on facebook, I can't help but wonder if people are confused. "Is she a performer or an author?" "What does she actually do?" Maybe the problem is that I do too much, and it's still not enough.

Perhaps John Steinbeck was right, "The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business."