December 3, 2017

Interview with Puneet Dutt, author of The Better Monsters

Puneet Dutt is the author of The Better Monsters, her debut collection of poetry published by Mansfield Press, 2017.  Dutt's past work includes the chapbook PTSD south beach (Grey Borders Books), which was a Finalist for the 2016 Breitling Chapbook Prize. Her poetry has been published in a number of journals and in Imaginarium 4: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing. She is an editorial board member at Canthius and a creative writing workshop facilitator with the Toronto Writers Collective.

A commentary about your poetry collection is that it "negotiates[s] the cultural complexities of politics, violence, and war in the new century, and explore the lingering effect of racism and the ideas of borders, belonging, and home in North America and beyond." 

Indeed, starting from Speak American to Throwing Stones, the poems movingly recollect memories of growing up in the US and the internal and external struggles that are experienced. Could you speak more to how you shaped the narrative of this collection?

I think the shape of the narrative first started to form itself around the series “Cider and Whiskey in Hotel Rooms”. I had started researching experiences of military and non-military personnel who work abroad for the government, and then a richness of their voices, stories and narratives began to come together to form that work. A blend of those voices and the research first grounded the collection, and then the experiences of migration and immigration. A common thread of violence tied it all together.

What literary pilgrimages have you gone on to inspire your writing?
I never intentionally took any physical journeys to write this book. The geographical locations and places both mental and physical all came from past stories shared by a number of voices who were willing to share them. Additionally, my experiences first as an immigrant from India to America, and then from America to Canada were also incorporated. But it was the way in which Asian bodies moved in different parts of the world, why and what they left out during our talks or research was what interested me more. The ideology of a place, such as the idea of India is mentioned in a quote by Nehru, how military and civilian government personnel work abroad and how America deals with them when they return back “home” and the immigrant experiences of my network were all ideas I became interested in.

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
When I first immigrated to the U.S., I had to take ESL classes in public school. I was taken out of standard classes with the rest of my cohort, and tucked away separately in a basement room. We would repeat words until we memorized them. I realized that unless I learned to speak the language of the country I was in, I would never be able to communicate effectively, and thereby, have no power of my own. Language and reading and writing became an obsession after that.

Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?

There are no intentional or metaphorical “secrets” in the book. The readers will interpret the work for themselves, and understand it as they would want to. But in mentioning secrets, a number of stories, experiences and voices either held back information, shared items off-the-record or certain sections or whole poems were redacted. What interested me were the silences marked by these voices. How they chose to skip, rush through, or leave out certain things. That is why this worked well as a book of poetry rather than non-fiction. I became aware that the form of poetry in the use of spaces lent itself well to this atmosphere of silence.

What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
The editing process becomes difficult because it sometimes means deleting whole poems or sections you may love, and leaving in the ones you may not be so attached to. In the end, you realize it’s for the best, and the work is polished in a way that you as a writer could not have done alone.

How long on average did it take you to write this collection, from conception to publishing it?
Over three years. Some of the earlier concepts formed the body of my chapbook, PTSD south beach, where I was initially exploring ideas of violence, terrorism, and speaking to military personnel. From there, another year of writing this manuscript and then another year between when it was accepted by Mansfield Press, and editing it for publication.

Have you ever written fiction? What are the differences when you shift from one to the other?
I do write fiction, although not as much as poetry. The mind shift is intense. I can’t work on both genres simultaneously. In fact, after this, I hope to begin on fiction again. The differences start with what I read. When I’m writing poetry, I can only read poetry, and when I’m writing fiction, I can only pre-read fiction. Pre-reading fiction because when I’m writing fiction, I can’t be distracted by anything else. Although with research, I can read non-fiction at either time. Poetry is a working person’s best friend. It allows me to work for short bursts of time, without the dedicated long hours in the day. Fiction requires a daily ritual and longer hours, which I did not have the time to put in. But with my upcoming leave, I intend to use my time wisely.

You're a working professional. How do you weave in time for your own writing? What's a day like for you as a writer?
When I was writing this collection, I had the privilege to work with a writer’s collective that would meet regularly. While nothing from those sessions was published in this book, it helped me to extend out of my comfort zone and not work entirely alone. I had a chance to workshop items I worked on at home, and I was exposed to writers I wouldn’t have otherwise engaged with. Since this collection has launched, I’ve been devouring books again, and taking time off from writing just read for pleasure. But starting in December, I intend to use my mornings, as most writers of fiction I know do, to write. The only way to write while working is to carve out an hour or two before the workday starts. I wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise. That means, waking up at 5:30 a.m. everyday and writing for an hour. Fiction will require much more time.

You are a Mentor and Workshop Instructor for TWC’s Write On! Program at the Toronto Public Library. 
What does mentorship mean to you? How do you nurture writers? 
Mentoring writers started out from my own personal frustration. I have never been able to connect with anyone to mentor me. Any opportunities for these extended ongoing relationships or connections were shut down very early on, or weren’t a good fit. And sadder still, the reluctance I tend to get is from women-identified writers. It’s the change I want to see in the world, particularly for people of colour. I want to provide what I never had. A mentor is anyone who reads the writer’s work, provides feedback or edits, connects the writer to publishing opportunities and other writers, editors and those in the community without expecting anything in return. In the last workshop, I met a wonderful writer who went on to apply to the Banff Centre, and has now returned with new work. I continue to check on her to ask if she is still working, connect her to publishing opportunities, and meet with her to keep up our relationship. It’s been extremely rewarding. But on the reverse side of it, the one receiving the mentorship should believe in themselves. TWC workshops instill this in every person, that everyone is a writer. Also, it’s not “if” but “when” you publish. I like to reinforce that when we speak.

What's your next writing project? Can you give us an idea of it?
I tend to lean towards writing and reading speculative fiction, so the next work is possibly a speculative novella. It’s a work in progress, so nothing is firm yet.

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