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Moez Surani: ‘Countries survive by projecting an identity that’s virtuous and noble’

Moez Surani's writing has been published widely, including in Best Canadian Poetry, The Walrus and Harper's Magazine. Surani, who lives in Toronto, is the author of three poetry books: Reticent Bodies, Floating Life and Operations, which was just published by BookThug.

Why did you write your new book?

Countries survive by projecting an identity that's virtuous and noble. In excavating this poem, which 193 countries inadvertently collaborated on, I wanted to reveal, in chronological order (by their precise onset date), the 61-year strip of language – the euphemisms, symbols, aspirations and clichés – that connects state-sponsored violence to virtuous national identities. Grasshopper. Heavenly Sea. Enduring Freedom. Moonlight Sonata. Political bodies use poetic language to bridge the breach between large-scale violence and an honourable identity. This rhetoric is haunted by the displaced, the conscripted and the dead. I began with the major conflicts: Vietnam, the Korean War, the Iraq War, then the disputes between India and Pakistan, the Yugoslav War and Mideast conflicts. When I began, I thought it was a poem that would be about 10 pages long. I quickly realized the scope was much larger – there's, on average, one operation per week – so I needed to be more methodical. I printed a list of the 193 countries that are signatories to the UN Charter, which aspires to universal peace, and went through them, researching each nation's military history since 1945, and crossed them off one by one. While these operation names are overwhelmingly combat-based, there are also some disaster-relief and humanitarian operations, and some propaganda operations, such as Operation Infektion, a Soviet campaign alleging that HIV/AIDS was created by American scientists.

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What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don't ask)?

Since this text is open-ended and accruing new names, such as Inherent Resolve in Syria this summer, will I be doing something to present this work in a way that accommodates the open-ended nature of this poem? I'm developing a real-time, responsive video monument which would display all of these code names from the founding of the UN to the present. A video display of Operations would allow the new names to be added as they happen. Over time, the text size would gradually shrink. My hope for this is that it holds a real-time mirror to the initiatives done by nations to protect, project and expand their power. It would, in essence, be a living record of the contemporary language of empire and colonization.

What scares you as a writer?

The scale I'm working at and scale of the destructive large-scale decisions that leaders make – that difference does make me feel sometimes that this work is futile. A question I was asked after a reading recently was the Adorno question: Can there be poetry after Auschwitz? And what I wonder is, if the world is going through a dark period, what poetry can be made before a calamity, when the forces that make that calamity are gaining strength?

Which book do you think is underappreciated?

Someone I always find fascinating is Karen Armstrong. Most recently she published Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. She's a former nun who left the convent because God didn't speak to her. Her book is about the naturalized structural violence that exists within countries and how political leaders use religion to placate injustices, instead of making the societies they govern more fair. It's a rich book with so many insights. Another point she develops is that radicalization is a countercultural response to a secular and elite government, and it gains its energy from the fear that the government wishes to annihilate them and their imperilled way of life.

What's the best advice you've ever received?

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A line of Leonard Cohen's, who I've been listening to a lot lately, has been in my mind: Poetry is a verdict.

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