Reluctant to play the race card, Raoul Fernandes provides scanty information about his youth in Dubai.
April 09th, 2015
“My childhood was not that strange,” he says. “Riding bikes, camping, being bored at church or school, being nervous around girls, Archie comics, Super Mario brothers, kicking a ball around on a street.”
As the second of five children, he was raised in the United Arab Emirates speaking English. He attended a Catholic school and earned the nickname Dreamer. In Grade 5, his teacher praised him when he wrote his first poem about stars.
“Maybe some things could have influenced me,” he concedes. “The sparseness of the desert landscape, the tension between the many groups of people there. The muezzin chanting in the evenings. There was open desert a few minutes walk from my first house, stretches of people-less beaches. It was hot, it rained only a few times a year. But it was not exotic.”
In those days Dubai didn’t have the world’s tallest building and the world’s second-most expensive hotel rooms (after Geneva). It was still a small, sandy city with far more immigrants than local Arabs (and that’s still the case).
Fernandes’ parents—both from India—had met and married in Dubai, so there were occasional trips to India to see grandparents and other relatives who lived within a large community of Catholics of Portuguese ancestry—hence the surname Fernandes. His father’s family was from a suburb called Bandra, in West Mumbai.
“Most of the kids we played with on the street in UAE were from many different parts of the world,” he recalls. “We were influenced by western TV, music, and movies, so we saw North America as an exciting free place. So when the possibility of moving to Canada came up, I looked forward to it.
“The relative open-mindedness of the western world was appealing to my parents, too. The kind of freedom of thought and agency here is easy to take for granted, but for a person coming from that part of the world, you notice it within days. You feel like you can breathe deeper.”
The Fernandes family immigrated from Dubai to Tsawwassen in 1993. “Mostly I was happy, or as happy as an awkward 14-year-old could be,” he says. “I remember music being a big deal in what was keeping me grounded; bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, REM. I wasn’t reading poetry at all. I was filling up notebooks with what I thought poetry was. Angsty, melodramatic stuff.”
In college he took some Creative Writing classes with Patrick Friesen who gave him some encouragement and guidance. Friesen also sent him to readings and open mics. “Looking back, I can’t help seeing myself as a kind of clueless and slightly obnoxious teenager who should have been paying better attention in class. I felt this way even more when I finally read Patrick’s poems years later and loved them.”
He dropped out of college, worked at a Dairy Queen and filled more notebooks. He shared his poems on internet sites such as Livejournal. “It made me feel less like I was writing in a vacuum.” And he found work as a janitor. “Of course, the main reason for moving to Canada was that my parents were wanting a better education and prospects for us, their children,” he says. “When I think about this, I can’t help feel bad about the disappointment they must have felt, after all they had done, to see me drop out of college and decide that poetry and the arts was the only thing I cared about.”
He kept writing. Sixteen years after arriving in Canada, he was accepted into the SFU Writer’s Studio, in 2009, with Rachel Rose as his poetry mentor. “I didn’t realize how hungry I was for an educational environment,” he says, “and what a deep pleasure it was to be invested in and practising a discipline that meant so much to me.” Shortlisted for the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers a year later, he created a file on his computer called “thebook.doc.”
The second place to which he mailed his manuscript picked it up, not long after he got married and had his first child. His debut collection, Transmitter and Receiver (Nightwood $18.95), is not easy to define. There’s a poem about a tulip vending machine. A poem about kids getting high on a roof. A call-centre poem. A janitor poem. A poem about building a flying machine with old walkmans. Poems from the point of view of a sad ATM machine. Poems about trying and failing to connect. Love poems. Trust poems.
“When people ask what I write about,” he says. “I don’t have a simple explanation. I could say I write poems that struggle with ‘what it means to be a human being right now,’ but that’s too grand and too vague at the same time. And who writes poems that aren’t about that?
“I love poems that light up my head in new ways, so I attempt to do that with my own. Some lines turn into poems, most go nowhere. I try new moves, I improve on old moves, I learn a bit, forget what I’ve learned. I try to get strange and honest. If a poem seems to have a heart, a spine, a central nervous system, that’s great, I’ll keep it.
“I often start with an image, a line. Something resonant, something that makes me curious. I’ll move around it, seeing if I can build a world for it. The problem I often face is that, if there’s a central image, the other things form too tight an orbit around it. It becomes too flat, too rational.
“The opposite is a problem too, where the other parts of the poem want to fly off into space and the poem does not hold together. Something in the middle is often best, a nice wobbly solar system with room for occasional comets and asteroids to blaze through.
“There’s something that photographer Gary Winogrand said, to the effect of ‘I photograph to see how things look photographed,’ and so not necessarily to see the thing itself. I’m coming around to that idea more and more. I write a poem to see how things look ‘poemed.'”
For Transmitter and Receiver, Fernandes says he wanted a title that is very “open,” like John Ashbery’s Some Trees or David Berman’s Actual Air. He feels that transmitting and receiving is what a poem does, what a book does, what a mind does. “To me, it also implies the distortion, the interference, the invisible stuff lost in the air. Occasional moments of clear music. One could also think about what goes on inside the body and brain, nerves sending signals, neurotransmitters, etc.”
Section one is playful, about writing and communication. Section two has Weird Suburbia poems. Section three has home poems, domestic poems, love poems. “I am trying to figure out my relationship with the outside world, work, strangers, concerns about the environment,” he says. “Paradoxically, this is what love and having a child can force one to reckon with.”