As part of Red Alder Review‘s on-going Open Mic series – Q&A and poem from Raoul Fernandes.
Red Alder Review (RA): How do you normally connect to the poetry/literary community?
Raoul Fernandes (RF): The way I usually connect is through attending readings and events. I’m on the board for Real Vancouver Writers Series and a member of the Dead Poets Reading Series, so I try to make it to most of those events. In a more personal context, I’m part of a little poetry book club, and I occasionally go for a drink or coffee with a writer friend. All the aforementioned things aren’t possible right now, obviously, so there’s a bit more on social media and group chats.
RA: What is the most memorable poetry event or Open Mic you attended in-person?
RF: In my early twenties, I went to Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey. I saw C. K. Williams read to an audience in a big tent. I can’t say why it was so memorable; he just ready really powerful poems, simply and quietly; it was the first time I realized how a poetry reading could be as moving as any other live performance. As far as open mics, I remember how special they felt when I first started going to them in my late teens with fellow students from a creative writing class. We were so young and green. At one of them, bill bissett performed, singing and chanting. It was fairly mind-blowing.
RA: Who are the poets who most influence you?
RF: I usually squirm at this question, but I like that it’s in the present tense. So I’ll stay very current: the last few books I’ve loved and have held in my mind are by US poets Jericho Brown and Ilya Kaminsky, and by local contemporary, Ali Blythe.
RA: Whose work are you most excited about reading in the months to come?
RF: Oh, I don’t know! I haven’t really been reading that much poetry or keeping track of what’s coming out. I might go through books on my shelf that might be good to re-read in this strange unsettled time. Something that gives me … not exactly comfort, but something grounding and clarifying.
RA: How has the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic affected your writing practice?
RF: Well, my favourite place to write is in cafes and libraries which I can’t go to anymore, so there’s more writing on the couch at home or on my lunch break at work. Not ideal but I’m trying to make it work. There’s been a few things that have been cancelled: a workshop I was going to lead, a visit to a class. In terms of actual writing, I haven’t been writing much in the last few years as I’ve been busy with school (just finished my library tech degree) and family and work. But there’s a bit more free time now so I’m trying to write more frequently. The situation itself makes it hard, though. It’s both tricky to write about something so new and encompassing and also weird to write anything that doesn’t address it. I gave myself the challenge to take a swing in the following long poem. It’s perhaps a bit of a drafty mess, but given that this is an “open mic” concept, this is the kind of thing I would try out when I used to go to open mics.
RA: What are you working on right now?
RF: Just bits of poems, fragments. Hoping they’ll put themselves together while I’m asleep.
RA: Do you have any new work forthcoming (in journals, chapbooks, collections,anthologies, etc.)?
RF: Sweet nothing! This is it, really. And thank you for asking for work from me, it really kicked me to do something.
Notes from an April
Early into this, I dreamed of crowds
and was shocked by how close they
were to each other. Now, the dream people
seem to be learning and stand
further apart. I wake each morning
reaching, almost with a thirst,
for my phone. Friends and strangers
carry little packets of information,
filtering, broadcasting, synthesizing.
Data falls off us like blossoms, numbers
crunch underfoot, graphs render
storybook hills. Every day, I feel small
but feverishly storied, written into
the earth, the equations, and lives
I can barely imagine.
The soft-spoken Save-On Foods cashier
sprays down the register and conveyor belt
after ringing me through
tells me he’s wishing his friends would shop here
so that he can see them
tells me he’s loves the biscuits I just bought.
Even to the atheists
the hand washing ritual
is starting to feel like prayer:
the awareness of the texture
of their skin, creases and lines
of the palm, the gaps between
fingers, each hand tending
to the other, the scrubbing
of dirt under the nails, circling
the wrist, moving up to the forearm.
The focus of attention, primarily,
even if it is lost minutes later
when our hands float up
to our faces as if to check
that someone is still there.
“I am grateful for ________”
repeated 5 times on the kid’s
printed worksheet on the kitchen table
next to the box of sharpened pencil crayons
and a small vase of blue flowers
from the garden, flowers
I cannot name.
Biking the full bags of groceries home
past cherry trees, the sweat I break
is an excess of diamonds.
That I have struggled with this poem
more than anything else I have
struggled with today,
is my kingdom.
That my nightmares are followed
by dreams of kindness and repair
is evidence of my fortune.
That I have an evening to soak
and grow my anxiety in a river
of information, that my young prince
is tantrumming over the lack
of dried pineapple in the cupboard,
that some people I don’t know
are sharing kitchens with wolves
or with no one in hospital rooms,
is a reminder of my
Everyone is saying we’re in this together,
but when has that not been true?
Still, I can see the connections, more visible
in this strange light, webs crossing
and silvering the air. Even if a spider
lurks at the centre and is slowly approaching,
it’s nice to feel all of you, if only
by the vibration of the strings,
this strange music I wake up to
that tells me I am not alone.
Raoul Fernandes lives and writes in Vancouver, BC. His first collection of poems, Transmitter and Receiver (Nightwood Editions, 2015) won the Dorothy Livesay Award and the Debut-litzer Award for Poetry in 2016 and was a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and the Canadian Authors Association Award for Poetry. He has been published in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including the Best Canadian Poetry 2015. // raoulfernandes.com