Home > Interviews > Taking Risks and Getting a Little Weird: An Interview with Raoul Fernandes

Former PRISM poetry editor Rob Taylor sat down with Raoul Fernandes, whose first poetry collection Transmitter and Receiver was published in Spring 2015. PRISM published five poems from the book in our Fall 2014 issue.

When The Teeth of the Gears Meet – Raoul Fernandes

the music chimes, the bicycle
climbs the hill, the clock releases
a bird. The streetlight blinks, goes night
day night day night. My bed
is a giant reset button I hold down
until morning. When the teeth
of the dream meets the teeth of the morning
I pour myself a cup of numbers in the kitchen.
Daydream a wheel inside a wheel. Daydream
children running from the shore with cupped
phosphorescence that dies out before
they reach us. Rushing back to do it again.
And I am a child running towards myself
and the teeth of the memory meet the teeth
of the day meet the clock, the highway, the heart.
Or the gears don’t touch, just spin like ceiling fans.
What’s a day? asks the sun. What’s night?
asks the moon. Will you send me
that beautiful book about asteroids?
I want my life to change.

from Transmitter and Receiver
(Nightwood Editions, 2015).
Reprinted with permission.
Raoul Fernandes, with various hipster accoutrements.

With a book called Transmitter and Receiver I expected a lot of technology to have worked its way into your poems. And its certainly there in abundance – video games and YouTube videos, .jpgs and cell phone ring tones. But just as prevalent, perhaps more so, are flowers – in the foreground in poems like “The Tulip Vending Machine” and “Flower Arrangements” and also popping up in little cameos, like the night flowers which “open with ease // in the politician’s garden” or the “soft buzzing” of flowers on an otherwise silent morning. I was wondering if you could speak about these two themes in your book – modern technology and flowers – and how they compliment and contrast one another. What does it mean for you when you put flowers in a poem? Could you imagine writing this book with the tech in but not the flowers?

It’s funny, I had absolutely no idea I had put that many flowers in the book until it was too late. It’s like some little imp came in when I was sleeping and pressed them all in. But yes – and let’s say that imp is a subconscious part of me – I have a few explanations. On a purely associative level, I like that sweet note that flowers can play and to use that to disrupt or enhance something in a poem. I have also felt distant or suspicious of something so purely beautiful when I was a moody and dark youth. That skateboarder in “Flower Arrangements” that holds the bouquet at a “precise distance” away from himself? That’s me, in a way. Just overwhelmed and unable to relate to that beauty. I remember a period later when I was reading a lot of Gerald Stern, who has flowers in his poems, and how startling it was to me, somehow. At the time a flower poem to me was the most radical thing. And then of course, I relate them a lot to my wife these days, she’s brought me into a quiet kind of appreciation of them and living green things in general.

As far as the technology goes, I think I was being playful with contrasts, mostly. I was trying to show the organic nature of technology as much as I was trying to place the flowers in unusual contexts as well. Flowers are a cliché right? But it’s also a fun game to try to un-cliché an old cliché.

Yes, I also love the challenge of un-cliché-ing clichés. Unflowering flowers?

Sticking with the recurring themes of the book, another of them seems to me to be commodification, especially commodification within a suburban setting. Flowers and food are turned into products, and thereby deformed. In “Affordable Travel Through Time” a group of teenagers hangs out in front of a rotating billboard and the speaker notes reverently that “Nothing / was purchased tonight and nothing sold.” What was your sense of the commodified world as a suburban teenager growing up in Tsawwassen, BC, and has it changed as you’ve aged and moved into the city?

This is an area I feel very out of my depth on, but I will try to circle around it. It might help if I talked about that moment in the poem you mentioned. I was looking back at a time where I, like probably a lot of young people, was struggling to find a meaningful framework for my identity and life, something authentic or even spiritual. And around me, things like movies, shopping malls, advertising seemed to force a meaning onto us that we didn’t want or at least, were very suspicious of. It was important to find meaning outside that, even though we didn’t know what it was.

Some poems might also relate to the “thingness” I was just talking about. In a poem, does something become more real, more of a specific thing when it’s placed in a dollar store or a vending machine? But being a mass-produced object, it loses uniqueness, so it becomes less real in a way, too. And another quality is that a mass-produced object is something shared, like when we drink a can of coke are we all connecting to the same object, just in different places? Confusing, right? Again, I feel out of my depth and I think I’m often just using it as a texture, not making any statements about it, but knowing when it feels right. Maybe you’d be able to help get a better grip on what I’m doing here.

I suppose I’m projecting my own experience on to your poems a bit, but as a child of Vancouver’s suburbs myself, now living in the city, I feel that my geographic location changes my sense of the commodified world. In the suburbs, growing up, and even now when I return to visit family, I feel awash in a world that is made up of possessions, where the value of “things” comes in the buying and selling and hoarding of them, and where the purpose of existence is the acquisition of the best and most desired items: megahouses and massive shopping mall parking lots full of minivans and Hummers. Then I compare that to the city where, certainly, there is hyper-consumerism in many areas, but also so much resistance to it, resistance I never felt in the suburbs, where consumerism felt like a warm blanket pulled over the lot of us. Maybe it has more to do with childhood/adulthood than suburb/city – I’m not entirely sure.

Though ours is hardly a unique experience – growing up in the suburbs, then moving to the big city – it isn’t a universal one, either. I felt in many of the poems in Transmitter and Receiver you used this perspective to take on questions like “What is a thing?”, “What is its worth?” and “In what currency is that worth measured?”. In these poems, a knowing, urban speaker looks back on their unknowing, suburban upbringing, and some insight or another is cracked open via the comparison. For instance, your poem “Night School”, which faces “Affordable Travel Through Time” – busing into the city looking for something, some answer or perspective the suburb couldn’t provide, something not found by the speaker until they’d made the move both into the city and into adulthood. Then there’s “Grand Theft Auto: Dead Pixels”, which I think you were hinting at above, where the speaker eats a fast food cheeseburger, emboldened by the fact that “maybe tens of thousands” are “experiencing this identical flavour / and texture at this precise time” while also noting that actually enjoying the meal is not important. How much more of a tangled suburban love song can one sing?

transmitter_and_receiver-cover-finalDo you find being in the suburbs substantially – let’s say, hesitantly, “spiritually” – different for you when it comes to how you see and understand the “thingness” of the world, compared to the city? And how, if at all, do you think your upbringing shaped the questions you now find yourself asking about “thingness”?

Goodness, what a question! Well, yes, the suburbs do feel that way now, the warm consumerist blanket of possessions, beautiful lawns, two car garages. Such a privileged and unsustainable ideal. I don’t know if going out into the city was to consciously get away from consumerism in particular (though you’re right, the city is a less materialist place and, in general, people are more conscious about these issues) but it was to go somewhere more noisy and unsettling, to shake us out of that safe and sedated feeling.

There’s a line from that Night School poem, “Friends who appeared / like giants by our town’s driftwood fires, now slapped / pale and diminished in this crowded light.” There was a shift in proportion when we were in the city, we felt smaller, and I think it was important to me to feel small at times. We also attempted this kind of disruption within the suburbs too – experimenting with mind-altering substances, staying awake all night at the beach, hanging out in cemeteries, etc. Music, art, books were also part of this. I didn’t know what my values were but I had resistance to it being money and possessions. Now I suspect what was important was connecting with people. Friendship is a strong theme, I believe, in those suburban poems. And the later poems explore connections with strangers and those close to me, my wife and child. Sometimes it’s through objects, but the objects themselves aren’t where the values lie.

Yes, I like that a lot. Especially the smallness part – the city is good for that. Sometimes too good. I’m wondering, as we talk about life being about friendships before objects, how you feel about peddling a book of your poems (in, say, author interviews) as a commercial item. Do you feel any tension there?

It might be me being biased, but I weirdly don’t feel much tension when it comes to books as commodified things in the world. Books seem kind of empty in a way, like vehicles for thought to be transmitted through, only existing when they are being written and when being read. Of course, it is also a bound physical object you can hold in your hand and a lot of disgruntled trees would have something to say about this somewhat romantic metaphysical idea.

As far as marketing goes, I’m pretty easy about it so far. I’d feel weird if there was marketing extraneous to the poems. Most of the time it’s the poems speaking for themselves (at a reading or on a bus ad), or some reaction or discussion of the poems (in an interview or review) so it feels ok to me.

Raoul, blinking, wearing the coat from a skinned corduroy sofa.

“You have this thing” are the opening words to the opening poem of the book (“By Way of Explanation“). Then again, two pages later, we come upon “this strong coffee, this pulsing sky” (“Bioluminescence“). “This” is a showcase word in Transmitter and Receiver, a word returned to again and again, and it seems to me that the centrality of “this” in the book suggests a bond you feel with the reader. The reader is there in the world of the poem with you and you are giving them a tour: it’s not just some random burger, it’s “this burger, this popular fast food cheeseburger” (“Grand Theft Auto: Dead Pixels”). You can almost reach out and pick it up in your hands. Why do you think you are drawn to “this” instead of “the” or “a” in so many circumstances?

That’s a really good observation. Again, something I haven’t consciously noticed. I like it, I wouldn’t mind a lot of my poems feeling like an intimate show and tell session. I like to bring the reader into the room of the poem, into the specific moment. There’s already so much in poems that risk distancing the reader or suggesting that objects in the poems are only symbols for something else. Sometimes it’s good to be clear on the actual thingness. Which is funny because I think I use the word “thing” often too, which is vague. So “this thing” is both specific and vague at the same time.

How, if at all, do you think your work as Goodnight Streetlight (and/or electronic music generally) informs your poetry? Vice versa?

When I first started making electronic music it was very playful and exploring, building little songs with whatever pieces of sounds I found around, from little Windows system bleeps to recorded ambient noises, to fiddling on a toy keyboard. One could make parallels to how I approach the data of my poems in the same way. Feeling out what’s within reach, then putting odd things next to each other and seeing what energy they produce. Also, people have used similar adjectives to describe my music: weird/dreamy/comforting. So that reveals something of my aesthetic. I just hope there’s a little bit of discomfort in there as well.

In reading the book it felt largely chronological: suburban teenage life at the front, family life with wife and son near the end. How much does that order line up with the order in which you wrote the poems? Have you found you’ve written about certain periods in your history at particular times in your life? What parts/times of your life did you start writing about first?

I tend to go back to my suburban teenage life a lot for material. Not sure why, it was a crazy intense time where I was trying to figure out both myself and the world. I was hanging out with a lot of weird kids who were in a similar position, feeling crazy and different yet existing in this very safe well-manicured pretty little town. I enjoyed that contrast. I’ve revisited that weird suburbia often and will continue to go back there I think. I didn’t write any of those poems during that time though, I should say.

The family domestic poems are a bit newer where I’m consciously trying to write something more current. It’s more of a challenge, in as far as I use memories at all, I usually need the memories to age a bit.

Similar to my last question, I’m wondering if any of these poems were written late in the publication process, maybe to fill holes in the manuscript, and if so, which, and what were the perceived holes? Having seen and read your book in print, did it inspire you to tackle anything different in book number two?

Regarding the newer poems in the book, I found the natural thing to do was to continue to write poems after the manuscript was accepted and then choose the ones I felt were playing different notes than the other poems, but somehow still connected to the themes. I don’t know if there were obvious holes, but I remember having a worry that there were too many poems that had the same feel, that used the same images (hello flowers!) or ended the same way.

I haven’t really started anything for another collection, but I think I’m going to just keep writing and let new poems grow organically and hopefully explore new terrain, voices, approaches. Maybe (probably) get deeper with some of the concerns that are already in this book. So no real plan, but I like the idea of working on a few little chapbooks instead of the somewhat daunting prospect of Book Number Two. I want to give myself the freedom to take risks and get a little weird. Whatever keeps my head lit up.

Raoul is Transmitting like crazy, so make sure you Receive a copy of Transmitter and Receiver soon. You can tune one in from your local bookstore, or from the Nightwood Editions website, or, if you wish to worship at the grand temple of commodification, via Amazon.

Rob Taylor is a former Poetry Editor at PRISM international. You can read more of his interviews here.