Books·How I Wrote It

Why Shazia Hafiz Ramji writes poetry about modern-day surveillance and addiction

The Vancouver poet and author discusses her poetry collection, Port of Being.
Port of Being is a poetry collection by Shazia Hafiz Ramji. (Invisible)

Shazia Hafiz Ramji is a poet and author based in Vancouver. Her latest book, the poetry collection Port of Being, examines the dynamic between the public and the private, for a look into the many ways we are surveilled — online, on the street, by the government and otherwise. 

The poetry collection was one of CBC Books's top 12 Canadian works of poetry that came out in 2018. Ramji spoke with CBC Books about how she wrote Port of Being.

Breach of privacy

"I recently experienced a difficult time in my life when a thief stole my phone and my laptop from my house. A couple weeks after that happened, this person repeatedly called me and asked to see me. This went on for about five months. I live in East Vancouver — which is kind of the scuzzy part of the city — and I was thinking about surveillance and about all the cameras that were recently installed in my neighborhood. So when this incident happened, I became obsessed with surveillance."

Public and private spaces

"About a year later, I lost my job and I was really depressed. I've experienced depression before and I'm a recovering addict, so I knew that what helped me in the past was listening — whether that was to people or music —  and walking the city. But this time, I was too depressed to go out of the house and make field recordings — things like going out in the forest and capturing sounds of birds and nature like I used to.

"I just began surfing the Internet in bed, as one does, and I came upon performance art by artist Vito Acconci called Following Piece. Acconci followed people in New York City in 1969, often for hours at a time until they reached a private space. Finding that work of performance brought up feelings about being followed, being stalked and about my obsession with surveillance. I then began researching those themes for the book."

Captured conversations, clustered thoughts

"I woke up at six in the morning and I just walked along the waterfront. I collected snippets of overheard conversations. Then when I returned home, I'd weave them into research that I was doing around surveillance, migration and my own addiction issues using my own medical documents.

"I also did a lot of clustering — there were large sheets of paper on my wall with cluster maps that I developed to see how all these ideas were connected. On my computer, I would have two documents open at the same time. I would draft the poem in one document and in the second document I would have a commentary on what I was writing. I was trying to document my process of thinking through the poem while I was writing it. It felt like such a big project."

Cathartic practice 

"I was working through what had happened to me through the poetry and coming at it from a slant. It was a bit scary to have my emotions out there — especially when it came to the poems about addiction and stalking. I hadn't really told anyone and my parents did not know how serious my addiction truly was.

"Writing this was cathartic for sure, but it was also a kind of revelation to acknowledge the things that I've been through. Before this book, I was honestly trying to subdue them and not to confront them. I gradually move to a more direct confrontation toward the end of the book."

Shazia Hafiz Ramji's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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