One Question Interview: Rishma Dunlop

26Feb12

Rishma Dunlop is an award-winning writer, and a Professor of English and Creative Writing at York University in Toronto. Her writing includes poetry, essays, fiction and translation, and editing work includes Red Silk: An Anthology of South Asian Canadian Women Poets. Her radio drama, “The Raj Kumari’s Lullaby,” was commissioned and produced by CBC Radio in 2005. She has written five books of poetry, most recently Lover Through Departure: New and Selected Poems.  

These are haunting poems inhabited by a strong sense of place, and places containing the echoes of people (“Bistro chairs capable of playing Mozart”) even as people are occupied by memory.  Is that fair to say, and could you elaborate on what motivates this feeling in the poems?

Yes, the poems in Lover Through Departure are haunted by a sense of place. Place, for me, is a defining limit and desire for permanence. I’m fascinated by the way human memory is contained in homes, architecture, cities, and landscapes. Places themselves are commemorative of trauma and wounds as well as joys and daily life. Sometimes, place even becomes the remembrance of a home that never was, or an ephemeral promise, edged with violence and destruction. In this sense, places are a mnemonic form of shelter, asylum, or an idealized resting place, a beloved native land, or a war zone—in which birthing, living, warring, praying, dreaming, and dying, all take place.

Human lives are only given permanence and presence in those places we are able to consecrate, and commemorate. Cities themselves are beloved places in my poems; some are even named as such, as in “Still Life,” in which the Slovakian capital city of Ljubljana is named, not only for its musicality, but also because the word means “Beloved.”

“Touch has a memory,” Keats reminds us, and in that sense, my poems become a kind of tactile recollection of a particular image, or moment, or essence. I am interested in the relational, the particular, the political, the horrific, and in poetry’s ability to give voice to the way external landscapes become expressions of consciousness—mindscape, memoryscape, dreamscape. Realism passes over to mythic vision that suggests sacred meaning and ritual. My poem “Birth of a City,” for example, is based on the ancient rituals through which an augur “inaugurated” the site of a city. After the site of a city was determined by the flight patterns of birds, the augur announced the three names required for every city to be consecrated:

The priestly, first, where trees meet the water.
The public’s then, to gather in the meeting place,
And the secret, sacred name, Fortitude.

Places become humanized, acquiring character from our projection of human stories and the embodied psychology of a person or a people. For me, the rendering of place in poetry is an invention of rhetoric, a reading against the conventional literature that claims the primary “reality” of place and its influence on the literary imagination. In “Paris,” as you note, bistro chairs are “capable of playing Mozart.”  I set out to capture how we can feel and think “through cities, through maps and grids, buildings and sculptures, the concentric circles of arrondisssments. … places on public statues where the patina has been rubbed shiny by passing hands….”

In some of my poems, place is a central omphalic point, a hub from which I draw the primary rhythms of the living world. There are two ways of sensing a place, as Seamus Heaney notes in his essay “The Sense of Place:” “one is lived, illiterate and unconscious, the other learned, literate and conscious.” Place, for me, is never a static object finished in time, nor some geographer’s pause in motion; it is the site from which time flows and the site that offers humans a regeneration of time when it is returned to or thought of as a sacred place.  “The ancestors are still there,” in my poem “Ancestors,” “echoing across the hillside stations and their railways / across the bloodied border of Kashmir and / the births of midnight’s children.”

In this omphalic sense, place has the power to redeem the returning consciousness by chiasmus or cross-linkage. This is also prevalent in “Metropolis Redux:”

In the empty theatres of the city, small productions are played out. Rain-slicked streets. Stories of charred roses, bones of mishap. A star plummets and a soul is exiled. In the storm of dreams, the cup of sleep. A doorway haunted by an open hand…

This place is not where she began. But here, her body has spilled blood and water, emptying towards the future….The city gives her voice, something singular chosen out of chaos.

These particular images, or my memories of them, inscribe themselves in my poems as emotive impulses. But my understanding of the role places play in our lives is also deeply rooted in a sense of beauty, both philosophical and aesthetic, a beauty that no doubt has its shadow, and its dark side. This sensibility is found in the way human psyches and bodies imprint themselves on architecture and the arts, but also on oceans, lakes, rivers, houses, cities. In the end, the poem is the record that haunts me and endures:

“—the poem that will not hold its tongue —refuses to shut its scarlet mouth.”

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One Response to “One Question Interview: Rishma Dunlop”

  1. Boyd you have a great format that’s shown me a different side of Dunlop’s poetry. Keep up the good work!


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