Özten Shebahkeget Interviews Louise Halfe – Sky Dancer
Özten Shebahkeget: What draws you to poetry as opposed to other forms? Who are some of the poets that have influenced you?
Louise Halfe: I’ve written poetry all my life and have explored other genres, but other than essay presentations the other forms have not captured my muse. So, I honor the gift I have been bestowed. I do not allow other poets to influence me, though I highly respected the late Patrick Lane and his raw honesty.
ÖS: Your latest poetry collection, awâsis – kinky and disheveled, contains a lot of shapeshifting. Did this affect the writing process for awasis at all? Does your writing process differ with each book?
LH: Yes, shapeshifter had me glued to its arrival and I had to pay attention to her/his shape as she/he settled on the page. Bear Bones and Burning In This Midnight Dream are similar in nature, The Crooked Good and Blue Marrow are both epic poems and follow a different thread. And naturally awâsis, as the character (him/herself) holds her own court.
ÖS: The use of humor is also an important facet of awâsis. Why is humor important to you and your writing?
LH: People discuss humor in their writing; however, there is a need to show rather than just talk about it. My previous work has been dark so to speak, though I myself am not at that place. Therapy is extremely useful, and I wanted to highlight the great humor people possess that is so essential to one’s survival.
ÖS: Do you consider writing a form of personal ceremony? Why or why not?
LH: Yes, it is. Spirit is very much in our bodies and it speaks through all of us. But most of the time people take it for granted that they are just human entities, and behave as such, not being mindful that we are all spiritual beings. Hence, spirit works through the body – fingers, heart- emotional intelligence, mind – the rational being.
ÖS: What would you like readers to take from your writing?
LH: I wish that people learn to dialogue with one another across cultures and their so-called class privileges. We’ve only one life and there isn’t time to waste it being racists – which is a form of low self-esteem. This low self-esteem is really a need to feel superior.
ÖS: Are there art forms outside of literature that influence you? What are they?
LH: I’m not influenced per se, but I can travel with their images as in painting and go on a wayward journey. I can watch a dance and create my own interpretation. I can listen to music, whatever it is: jazz, symphony, orchestra, country, and allow my emotions and have free flowing thoughts.
ÖS: Where do you want to go next, with writing and with life?
LH: Where-ever the spirit takes me, and it insists I will listen and discern.
Louise Bernice Halfe – Sky Dancer was raised on Saddle Lake Reserve and attended Blue Quills Residential School. Her first book, Bear Bones & Feathers (Coteau, 1994), received the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award and was a finalist for the Spirit of Saskatchewan Award, the Pat Lowther Award, and the Gerald Lampert Award. Blue Marrow (Coteau, 1998) was a finalist for the 1998 Governor General’s Award for Poetry, and her fourth book, Burning in This Midnight Dream (Coteau, 2016), won the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award and the Raymond Souster Award, among numerous other awards. Her newest book is awâsis – kinky and dishevelled (Brick Books, 2021). Brick Books is publishing a new edition of Burning in This Midnight Dream in May 2021. Halfe was awarded the Latner Writers Trust Award for her body of work in 2017, and was awarded the 2020 Kloppenburg Award for Literary Excellence. She was granted a lifetime membership in the League of Canadian Poets, and currently works with Elders in the organization Opikinawasowin (“raising our children”) and lives near Saskatoon with her husband, Peter.
Özten Shebahkeget is a member of Northwest Angle 33 First Nation and an MFA candidate at the University of Saskatchewan. She grew up in Winnipeg’s North End and holds a BA in English from the University of Winnipeg. Her poetry has appeared recently in CV2, Prairie Fire and The Winnipeg Free Press.
Özten Shebahkeget: What are you currently reading, and what are some of the books that have influenced you?
Waubgeshig Rice: I recently started a podcast with my friend Jennifer David called “Storykeepers” that focuses on literature by Indigenous authors, so I’m doing a lot of reading and re-reading for that. Our next episode features Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq, so I’m giving that another look. Otherwise, I’m chipping away at a re-read of Stephen King’s The Stand just for fun. As for the books that have influenced me, there are so many, but if I was to highlight the books I read as a teenager that changed my life, I have to mention Keeper n’ Me by Richard Wagamese, Tracks by Louise Erdrich, Green Grass Running Water by Thomas King, The Lesser Blessed by Richard Van Camp, and Ravensong by Lee Maracle. There are so many more, too!
ÖS: What does your writing routine look like?
WR: It’s been pretty varied due to the pandemic and how it’s affected our life at home. For most of the school year, our older son was in class physically. So I’d take him to school, and then write for the rest of the morning, take a break for lunch, and then write in the afternoon until he was home. But for our most recent lockdown in Ontario, schools here in Sudbury went online in March, so he’s been at home since and I’ve been helping him with his schooling. So I moved most of my writing to the evening when both of our kids (we have a one-year-old son as well) were in bed. I’ve always tried to be adaptable and flexible with my writing routine, and the pandemic has been a good test of that!
ÖS: You were a journalist for a number of years with CBC before moving on to fiction. What do you feel are your responsibilities as a writer? Do they change as you hop genres?
WR: I feel my responsibilities first and foremost are to the people who share stories with me, and to the cultures and communities they come from. When I worked as a journalist, I always saw myself simply as a conduit for the real-life experiences of others. I was there to help them share their stories with wider audiences. And now that I work primarily as an author of fiction, a lot of the stories are inspired, influenced, and informed by my Anishinaabe heritage and community. So my responsibility is to my people, if I’m going to write about Anishinaabe experience in fiction. That means respecting culture and history, and sharing stories in a respectful and meaningful way. I need to be aware of my limited perspective, and the permissions around sharing certain details, specifically about culture. For me, I don’t think those responsibilities change much as I move across genres and formats. I always have to be accountable to the communities I inhabit and participate in, because they’re what influence just about everything I write.
ÖS: You’re currently working on the sequel to your novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow. How has the writing process been compared to MCS?
WR: I wrote Moon of the Crusted Snow while I was working as a full-time TV reporter for CBC in Ottawa, so most of that writing happened in the early mornings, evenings and on weekends. It was basically a spring to get as much written as possible in those short windows! I was fortunately able to take a couple leaves of absence for a couple months at a time to really finish it up. But that process was entirely different from my current work on the sequel. My family and I now live in Sudbury, and I left my job at CBC here in May of last year to focus primarily on my career as an author. That’s really when the heavy lifting for the next part of the story began. I was able to spend my daytime hours developing and researching the story, and I’ve never really had that full-time opportunity before. It definitely hasn’t felt like a frantic or rushed process. It’s been nice to be able to take my time and let the story unfold naturally. After spending most of the rest of last year dreaming up and plotting out the story, I started writing out the manuscript. I just finished the first draft, and I’m excited to begin the revision process.
ÖS: What drew you to apocalyptic fiction?
WR: Initially it was reading classic books in the genre back when I was in high school. In Grade 12 English class we read Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and more. I was really drawn to the speculative imaginings of life after the end of our current world. I saw those stories as commentary on the flaws and detriments of our current society, and just how bad things can get if we don’t live in a good way. But also around the same time, I had a conversation with my grandmother on the rez about how Anishinaabeg (and all Indigenous people) have already survived the end of the world. She reminded me about our people’s history on the shores of Georgian Bay and how our ancestors were displaced from our homelands, which were then exploited for capitalism. It’s a perspective and knowledge of history that really reminded me of the resilience of Indigenous people, and how our modern stories are all basically post-apocalyptic. That really inspired me to try to capture that experience in literature, which a lot of other Indigenous authors like Louise Erdrich and Cherie Dimaline have done expertly.
ÖS: Do you pre-plan your writing? Or do you write by the seat of your pants?
WR: I pre-plan almost everything! I always write a story outline and character profiles before I write the actual manuscript. I also make pretty detailed notes of some of the elements I want to include in the story, no matter how minor or seemingly mundane. That all helps me build the world the characters inhabit before jumping in to explore it myself as the writer of the story. I write a lot of the imagery that I imagine in my head, so I sometimes create visual references too, whether that’s taking photos on my own, or finding images and representations of what I want to write about online. Even though I do a lot of meticulous planning, I still approach the actual writing process with a pretty open mind. I let the story do what it needs to, even if it deviates from some of that original planning. I think writers really have to be flexible and allow stories to unfold organically. In that sense, all that pre-planning can be a good foundation or guideline. All that to say, it’s important to remember to have fun!
ÖS: Who do you write for besides yourself? And what do you want readers to take from your work?
WR: I write for anyone who wants to read. I just want to create a compelling story that a reader can connect with. All I want them to take from my work is that it comes from a writer who is trying to do their best, who stays true to themselves and their background. It’s important for me to be as genuine and candid as possible in my writing, and I hope that comes through. I also hope they learn something, and that my writing potentially opens their eyes to new experiences or stories, regardless of their cultural background.
ÖS: Where would you like your writing to go next?
WR: Well, after spending so much time in recent years working on post-apocalyptic and dystopian settings, I would like to write something a little lighter! I have some ideas for funnier stories I’d like to explore. We’ll see how that goes once I’m done with all the revisions to the sequel of Moon of the Crusted Snow. I’d also like to gain more experience with screenwriting. It seems like a wide and exciting world with a lot of potential for interesting storytelling. But at the end of the day, I’m just really thankful for any writing opportunity that I have. I’m very fortunate to have ended up on this path. It’s a dream come true!
Waubgeshig Rice is an author and journalist from Wasauksing First Nation. He has written three fiction titles, and his short stories and essays have been published in numerous anthologies. His most recent novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow, was published in 2018 and became a national bestseller. He graduated from Ryerson University’s journalism program in 2002, and spent most of his journalism career with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as a video journalist and radio host. He left CBC in 2020 to focus on his literary career. He lives in Sudbury, Ontario with his wife and two sons.
Özten Shebahkeget is a member of Northwest Angle 33 First Nation and an MFA candidate at the University of Saskatchewan. She grew up in Winnipeg’s North End and holds a BA in English from the University of Winnipeg. Her poetry has appeared recently in CV2, Prairie Fire and The Winnipeg Free Press.
*A note on the text: due to constrictions of WordPress, the excerpts from the text may not be formatted as they appear in the text. We did our best to format excerpts as close to the original as possible.
Honey. That viscous, golden-amber liquid produced by bees has been praised for centuries for its delicious taste as well as its medicinal (and sometimes magical) qualities. Many ancient cultures considered honey and milk acceptable gifts to the gods. It comes as no surprise then, that the poems and short prose in Amal El-Mohtar’s The Honey Month (2010) draw upon the sensuous and mythical qualities associated with the golden nectar.
The Honey Month had its beginnings in a set of twenty-eight different types of honeys that had been given to El-Mohtar as a gift by a friend. Inspired by this collection of exotic honeys, she set out writing poems or pieces of prose for each flavour of honey she tasted in the following month, preceded by short sections of sensory notes describing the smell, taste, and colour of each sample. Written in a journal-like format, each day has a new entry of honey-inspired poetry or prose to whet your sweet tooth. The pieces in this collection are dripping with language that excite the senses and expand on the sensory notes given at the beginning of each entry. They also pay homage to the mythical history of honey by telling tales of daring, lonely, and not-altogether-human women and the enchanted worlds they inhabit. El-Mohtar mixes honey with fairy-tale worlds so well that honey itself takes on magical qualities, as seen in “Raspberry Creamed Honey”:
‘Where, if you’ll pardon my asking,’ I cleared my throat slightly, ‘is the dawn?’
‘Being swallowed by the ogress,’ murmured the river. ‘She’s pulled it from me like a tablecloth, and I am bare and cold when I should be warm.’
‘Why now? The dawn has risen for every day of the ogress’ long life; why should she fancy a taste for it now?’
‘Why not?’ shrugged the river. ‘She’s an ogress; you’ll find they’re always hungry. Perhaps she ran out of raspberry creamed honey and thought the dawn an appropriate substitute.’ (31)
The poems and prose are laced with magic, injecting the otherworldly into their lines. The dream-like mood of these pieces transports the reader into new and intriguing worlds, while the sensory language helps ground them in real smells, sights, and tastes. The book itself is a work of art, with beautiful illustrations interspersed among the entries. The images reflect the written poems and prose in bewitching washes of vibrant colour that are as pleasing to the eye as El-Mohtar’s words are to the mind.
With Rhysling Awards for Best Short Poem in 2009, 2011, and 2014 under her belt, El-Mohtar’s skill as a poet is well recognized. In fact, the poem that won the 2011 award, “Peach Creamed Honey,” is in The Honey Month. Anyone who has read El-Mohtar’s other poetry will be familiar with the speculative lens through which she frequently writes, and this collection is no exception. The book oozes with magic, mystery, and intrigue and will leave you guessing at what has truly taken place at the end of each work of prose and poetry.
The tone of El-Mohtar’s magical pieces oscillate between whimsical and coy and something far more oblique and dangerous. The more cheerful poems and short fiction use the motif of honey and sweetness to emphasize pleasure. In “Peach Creamed Honey,” the poem is lighthearted, a tale of playful young lovers under the summer heat:
I’ll see her lick her lips, and I’ll see her bite a frown,
and I’ll see how she’ll hesitate, look from me up to the town
and back, and she’ll swallow, and she’ll say: ‘can I try?’
and I’ll offer like a gentleman, won’t even hold her eye.
Because she’ll have to close them, see. She’ll have to moan a bit.
and it’s when she isn’t looking
when she’s sighing fit to cry,
that I’ll lick the loving from her,
that I’ll taste the peaches on her
that I’ll drink the honey from her
suck the sweet of her surprise. (17)
Other pieces hint at the darker side of these charmed, magical worlds. Often, these depict the destruction of a naïve or lonely young woman who ignores her gut feelings or the advice of others, and ultimately meets their end. In such works, honey is like bait in a trap, luring girls in with surface-level beauty or pleasure before they finally succumb to hidden danger. These are cautionary tales about the magical intoxication these honeys can bring. “Lemon Creamed Honey” is one of these bleaker tales:
The lemon road is long, the lemon road is wide,
The lemon road is pleasant maid-sung song;
The lemon road will have you for its bride.
When first I ventured my feet from the salt-stitched tide,
They told me I was foolish, told me I was wrong.
‘The lemon road is long, the lemon road is wide,
It will sour all your footsteps, sour you inside.
Stay here with the brine, with us, where you belong—
the lemon road will have you for its bride.’
I laughed at their warnings, but I couldn’t—though I tried—
put them from my thoughts while I walked myself along.
The lemon road is wide, the lemon road is wide,
and I felt myself pucker, felt a tightness in my side,
a frown on my lips, with the whisper growing strong:
the lemon road will have you for its bride. (25)
Whether it’s for the magic, delicious language, or beautiful layout, The Honey Month is the perfect book for anyone who likes a bit of magic and honey in their lives. This wide array of honey-inspired stories offers something different with each entry. It’s almost guaranteed that you won’t be bored, as Amal El-Mohtar is a master of sensory language and enchanting poetry and prose reminiscent of fairy tales. Read it like a sampling and enjoy your own honey month.
El-Mohtar, Amal. The Honey Month. Papaveria Press, 2010.
Review by Amanda Dawson. Amanda grew up in rural Alberta, Canada, where she spent her time reading books, stargazing, and searching for a door to the Faerie realm in the forest near her house. She is currently pursuing a MFA in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan.
The painting on the cover of Louise Halfe’s latest poetry collection, awâsis – kinky and disheveled, is jarring at first glance: An Indigenous person with electrifying hair, a fox’s tail, one muscular arm draped with white fur and a pair of serpents, and the other in a pink dress next to a protruding breast. This character is the namesake of the collection, awâsis, which means child in Ininiw, but the literal translation of this word is being lent to a spiritual being. As Halfe’s opening poem explains, awâsis is a relative of Wîsahkêcâhk—a trickster figure in Cree legend. Like Wîsahkêcâhk, awâsis is a genderbending shapeshifter who lives through story, and Halfe is the written witness. She indicates in her acknowledgements that this collection was inspired by numerous Cree storytellers from a variety of communities and is meant to honor the tradition of oral storytelling, as well as the inner-child that adults seem to lose touch with as they age. awâsis is also an examination of the English language and the colonial borders of gender, and plays with these through awâsis’ constantly switching pronouns.
The collection opens with a poem from the speaker’s perspective. “I like the way awâsis’s âcimowinis, story darts / up and down my bones” they say, and awâsis nearly bounces from the page, shapeshifting from coyote to weasel to wind in this piece (11). awâsis’sgender, human/animal form and the setting change with each subsequent poem, and the speaker has no qualms about the shapeless structure of awâsis’s story, noting: “Who am I, the otâcimow, storyteller to dictate / his thoughts, his actions? / I just do what I’m told” (13). The reader is then able to enjoy awâsis’s adventures as they morph with every poem, travelling from across the rez to around the world.
In her acknowledgements of the collection, Halfe writes that she is unapologetic if awâsis’s interchangeable pronouns confuses readers. In the poem “otâcimow – The Storyteller,” the speaker says: “awâsis, awâsis. I’ve heard / the settler is confused / about your shape-shifting / You can’t decide / if you’re an animal or a human / if you are a he or a she” (11). It can be surprising, as a reader, to find awâsis in one poem as a man cutting his face on a razor and with a pregnant stomach in the next. The thesis statement of the collection lies in the poem “Remember When,” which closes with: “In nêhiyaw, Cree country, when people speak / of a man or woman / they know that spirit / is neither and is all” (18). This statement can also be true for things beyond the gender binary. It reminds me of something I heard the two-spirit elder Barbara Bruce say at a Manitoba two-spirit gathering a few years ago. Bruce explained that the divide between genders is much like the assumed dichotomy between good and evil within humanity and nature—it is self-imposed and constricts real-life experience. awâsis is a melting pot of dichotomies.
The shapeshifting nature of each poem in awâsis embeds the reader in a web of wild and urban settings, from a forest resembling a pregnant woman’s body to Salvation Army and the portage of a lake. awâsis’s transformations into various animals and other non-human forms in these settings further remind us that humanity is not detached from nature. While we cannot literally morph into bears or lightning strikes, awâsis is a reminder that we can and often do resemble their characteristics in our own ways.
In the poem “One in a Thousand,” it is said that awâsis would “lazily pick something off the ground / and wear whatever she’d decided to be that day” (26). The speaker remarks a few times that they are envious yet love awâsis for their ability to walk through the world with child-like joy—that could even be madness. And it is evident throughout the collection that awâsis moves with an air of freedom difficult to embody: “She’s the woman wearing work boots / driving a transport loaded with fruit / going cross-country” (18). awâsis is Halfe at her best. It is a celebration of the Cree storytelling tradition, an ode to the trickster figure Wîsahkêcâhk, and a gift to Indigenous two-spirit and queer communities.
Review by Özten Shebahkeget, a member of Northwest Angle 33 First Nation and an MFA candidate at the University of Saskatchewan. She grew up in Winnipeg’s North End and holds a BA in English from the University of Winnipeg. Her poetry has appeared recently in CV2, Prairie Fire and The Winnipeg Free Press.
*Note on the text: because of constrictions of WordPress, poetry excerpts are formatted as closely as possible to the text, but discrepancies might appear.
Filled with evocative images, stunning beauty and violence, Allan Safarik’s Blood of Angels (2004) is a collection I would recommend to those who typically avoid poetry. With fifty years of experience, Safarik’s work is often surreal and imagistic, probes human complexity yet is accessible to a wide audience. Blood of Angels was written following his time as Writer-in-Residence in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, which included weekly sojourns to St. Peter’s Abbey in Muenster. Inspired by monastic life, there are poems about monks working the field and wracked by age, devotion and changing seasons, but also religious fervour and bloodshed. In one ten-page stretch, Safarik leaps from Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, to a gruesome “portrait of truce” in no-man’s-land, to elegizing a slain El Salvadoran Archbishop. Reading this collection reminded me of the eclectic conversations in Safarik’s creative writing class at St. Peter’s College. It showcases a curious mind, activated by the raw material all around him.
The first section, “The Harvest of Souls,” offsets austere reflection with surreal, even humorous insights. “The Sowing” asserts that “life turning lonely and small, depends / on a handful of dried seeds planted in time” (10). By contrast, in “New Year’s Resolution: St. Peter’s Abbey,” Safarik pictures himself as the “Mouse Man of Muenster,” chewing cream “and whole grain bread into a thick pap / before I feed the naked baby mice / with an eyedropper from the monk’s infirmary” (32). Safarik does not lack imagination and is clearly indebted to Imagism. “Blood of Angels” demonstrates his penchant for short, concrete lines:
evening piling up
in the western sky
sun peering above
the horizon like
a half-cooked egg (12)
One could interpret clashing colours in the sky as symbolic of the clashing expressions of faith this collection portrays. Fittingly, the standout poem of this section is “Harvest of Souls” (27-28). With its neo-Beat repetition of “The souls,” everything from vegetables to flowers, geese, vacationers, transients, and departed ancestors are put on equal spiritual footing.
The second section, “The Holy Road,” counter-balances the peaceful and whimsical reflections that precede it. Warfare, paranoia, and persecutions populate these pages. A man muses on tribal conflict: “This war never really starts or ends / but like all wars simmers forever on the / hearths of storytellers and old scarred men” (“The Holy Road” 46). Safarik explores primeval impulses that consider “the letting of blood… a necessary purging” (“The Traveller At The Beginning and End of Time” 66). That some narratives of extremist violence blur together suggests there may be a few too many. Nevertheless, poems like “The Grave” (38), depicting a man digging his own grave, and “Cargo” (49-51), a chronicle of a colonial sea voyage gone awry, are both shocking and thought-provoking. A non-violent poem, “Things That Might Have Been,” imagines life around the Ganges River: “fragrant oranges in shaded grottoes / severed monkey hands in the bazaar / grey-headed nuns washing bodies” (63). Here, as elsewhere, Safarik layers image upon image, energetic as a child, deliberate as a bricklayer.
The third and final section, “Abbey Meditations,” is indeed meditative, set against a backdrop of seasonal change. In “Under The Apricot Moon,” Safarik slips away from “literary conversation about the poets / who moved out west and became movie stars” (73) into the refuge of a summer evening in Muenster. In “October Song,” he states:
Every tree in the shelter belt
a permanent resident
I represent the temporal
simply a visitor caught
up in a lifetime
reading and writing (80)
In “First Winter Storm,” while monks make “solemn music in ecclesiastic air,” Safarik struggles to write, “cannot empower the voices in my head / to speak to me about God, only poetry” (84). Throughout this section, spanning late-summer through winter, Safarik ponders what it means to be a West Coast writer in Saskatchewan, a “visitor” amongst disciples of God, a human in a holy landscape. But he avoids esoteric musings, worships at the altar of precise images: “dark-limbed spruce trees with hoary beards” (“Witness” 87) and “old monks in black robes” with “discarded onion-skin faces” (“Onion Skins” 88).
Blood of Angels may be inspired by sojourns to St. Peter’s Abbey, but it is no simple record. Flip to any page and one will find a mind transmuting regular experience into singular art. These poems, by an itinerant poet already “gone on / to the next accidental location” (“Epilogue” 95), evoke the universal in the particular, the spiritual in the secular.
Safarik, Allan. Blood of Angels. Thistledown Press, 2004.
Review by Brandon Fick. Born and raised in rural Saskatchewan, Brandon Fick writes realistic fiction (and some poetry) and reads a variety of genres, with particular interest in horror, war, and western novels. Brandon has been published in Polar Expressions, in medias res and The Society. He received a B.A. Honours (English) from the University of Saskatchewan and a Writing Diploma from St. Peter’s College, and was proud to be awarded the Reginald J.G. Bateman Memorial Scholarship in English and St. Thomas More College Creative Writing Scholarship, among others. Currently, he’s very grateful to be connecting with other writers in the MFA program at the U of S.
Jennifer Still (she/her) explores intersections of language and material forms in her home town in Treaty 1 territory (now known as Winnipeg, MB, Canada). She is the author of three poetry collections, Girlwood (Brick Books, 2011), Comma (Book*hug 2017), Saltations (Thistledown, 2005) and a few handmade chapbooks. Her threaded poems appeared in the group exhibition Illuminations (Mentoring Artists for Women in the Arts, 2018) at Aceart Inc. and The Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba. She has served as a mentor and editor and is currently completing her fourth collection, an illuminated long poem composition with pinholes, a light table, electric typewriter and carbon sheets.
Tea Gerbeza: What are you currently working on?
Jennifer Still: I’m up to my eyes in a manuscript of dots and holes. It all started when I pressed a pin through a page and erased a word with light. The page was a turn-of-the-century study of the honeybee by Belgian playwright and essayist Maurice Maeterlinck. The language was ecstatic and magical and the hundred-year-old paper yellowed and soft.
This piercing erasure, back when I discovered it in 2015, was more of a code than a poem. A series of perforations with a word saved here and there. A lacy structure that threatened to shatter.
I was fresh in the shock of losing my mother very quickly to lung cancer. I felt far from words, far from being able to read even. There was no text or tradition that could comfort my atheist heart, so I started making one up (a text that is—though also my heart). Flipping through Maeterlinck’s reverie of the bees felt gentle. As I grazed over his bee language, I circled words that shimmered and started to connect them into a lifted text. I came across an image of a honeycomb structure that looks like the zigzag stitch on my mother’s sewing machine. I ran a page through the feed dog, trying to puncture out a line, but the book was old, the pages too brittle, so it just tore. So instead, with the same forward motion of a stitch, I used a needle tool to punch out the words, point by point. It was mesmerizing. So detailed and final and clear. Something about the rhythmic labour. The tactile crack of fibres under my tip. The minute sound of rupture. The daily piercings became a monotonous, domestic on and on and on, that left a type of ellipses when I looked back. It wasn’t long before the physicality of the piercing was as important as the words I was saving. It was a kind of unwriting, anti-writing even. It was lovely to make a mark that didn’t sound, that didn’t need anything more from me. But yet it still communicated something. And then the magic happened. One day I held the page to the light and all the saved words floated into view, as if right off the page, surrounded by those tiny pinpricks. It was a beautiful encounter, words and light, and it felt dangerous too, like I was testing the page to see how much it could be devastated and still maintain structure. Physically and lyrically. How could a page hold absence and light? It was all very beautiful and spoke to me and I followed it. I can see now how that initial work was an acute document of separation which of course, is ultimately about connection. Kind of like the track a stitch leaves in fabric when a seam has been ripped. Every text I’ve made since has grown out of these tiny piercings. Every page I’ve composed has a transparency to it—a scratch in carbon paper, a letter cut from a powdered typewriter ribbon—a physical passage that streams light.
Right now, I’m combining all my dot and hole compositions—carbon sheets through electronic typewriter, letter cut-outs on a daisywheel ribbon, pierced pages—into a cohesive collection for traditional book form. The text has become a single unpunctuated line. It’s as if I’ve fallen through those first piercings to learn they’re not absences at all, but vowels. A long line of vowels calling out from the center of a voice that has a lot to say. The illuminated poems have taken the shape of a single hundred-page poetic line. It’s quite exasperating. And exciting. And a wallop to edit.
The fullest vision is a poem that can only be fully read when held to the light. So, I will hopefully share the physical manuscripts illuminated in a gallery, or shared digitally, for a three-dimensional experience of the work.
TG: What have you learned through working on your current project about the intersections of language and material forms?
JS: That I’m interested in the tiniest, intricate marks of language. And that a poem is not limited to existing on a page. It can be a performance, an animation, an installation and a book. I’m interested in the embodied experience of poetry and poem making—the implement one uses to compose, the possibilities of what might constitute “a page” and how a poem can be shared and read as a three-dimensional experience.
I’ve learned that using an analog method for composition—a method that can’t be saved in any permanent, stable way, nor neatly revised with a delete key—is a very productive way for me to work. Though slow, it is also wildly informative. There’s more at risk when I type a word into an antique sheet of carbon. I press myself into form before pressing the key in a different way. Using a typewriter allows me to move ahead and ahead with a rhythm, the words leave a physical imprint in the world, and at their moment of impact they make a very loud percussive sound that feels like music. Composing on a typewriter reminds me of the impact of the written word, that every character is a strike.
The physicality of my work guides my process and content. When I first shared my pierced poems on a light table at a University of Manitoba Archives poetry symposia, the light through my pages created a kind of starry effect, a glitter beside me as I read. Later, when I was Writer-in-Residence at the U of M’s Center for Creative Writing and Oral Culture, I collaborated with the U of M’s Star Factory planetarium to project my poems up into the dome and perform a reading in the dark.
I find lifting the poem into material forms allows for physical iterations that add and extend meaning, that can be translated into performance. This is just how my imagination works. In a very physical way. The page as constellation, the page as a sifter of light.
The ways to experience a text are greatly altered when one explores language with the physicality of the page in mind and I highly recommend it as a writing exercise. For instance, a poet could ask themselves what is the object version of my poem? and see where this takes them in language.
I guess for me, poetry has always been about creating openings and connection and pluralities. And making things up. That language exists because I can imagine it, because you and I here in our bodies can imagine it, makes me want to acknowledge the physical body that makes all this imagining possible. I just don’t want to forget the body, the hand, in my work.
TG: In your recent collaborated chapbook, Table for Four, there are fragments of lines on paper strips that you paper-weave into a visual poem. Could you talk about what the process of paper weaving is like? How do you approach creating a paper-woven poem? How do you “revise” it?
JS: I assembled that poem like latticing pastry on a pie! It was a joy. And my solution to the collaborative challenge: making a poem out of 16 lines chosen from 4 different poets. Somehow allowing the physical structure of the weave to guide the poem was a way to handle the words of others with playful respect. Or maybe it was cowardly. I deferred lyric responsibility to the form! All the lines remained whole while also being partially obscured and altered. I love how the words interact individually at all the little warp and weft cross-sections. And that the weaving is two-sided and can be read in different directions. The words land where they land in such structures and one can really only observe and listen to what is there.
Once the weave was done, the words were set and so the revision was more about listening for how best to arrange it within the manuscript and how to present it visually (white strips on a black background, black strips on a white background, front and back on a single page, front and back on two sides of the same page?). Still lots to consider. I enjoy pieces that are set by form like this, like your paper strip weave through the quill.
TG: What draws you to the long poem form? How is that work different than a more traditional collection of poetry?
JS: My experience as an artist has been one of adapting, self-study, making things up. Making everything up is so exciting to me. I do admire tradition and rules and forms, but they’re not where I come from. The short answer is that the long poem affords me the most room to make things up. It allows me to go as far as possible with a subject or an idea. It allows me to circle and extend and refract and repeat. It seems to be the form that is most open to movement, digression, polyphony, possibility, inventiveness, experimentation, visual shape. The long poem can really look like anything. Eventually it defines itself and I love this. I imagine its shape something that exists in the sensed unknown, but needs to be found. Like an ultrasound of an inner voice that says this is what my silence looks like.
I don’t hear poetry in discrete anecdotes, rather I hear it in waves and rushes, rhythms more akin to swimming than, say, diving. There’s no definite beginning or end to the long poem, in my experience. When I read a long poem, it feels more like I’ve stepped into a current that is just a point in a much longer force. It has endurance and sustained rhythm and can end and begin mid-stroke.
TG: During my mentorship with you this past summer, we had a conversation about how we both loved the ongoingness of a long work rather than the final end result. What is your favourite part of this continuing?
JS: The refusal of a definitive end.
TG: Describe your revision process. What is the charm that you hold close as you revise? What is the most challenging?
JS: This fall I adopted a methodical daily revision schedule that involved building a bonfire in my backyard at sunset, pouring a cup of tea, and sitting down with my full hardcopy manuscript and reading and pencilling-in notes, a few pages a day. The next morning, I would sit at my laptop and make my revisions and then use these old, marked-up pages to start my fire in the evening. I got through 100+ dense pages this way. It got to the point where I didn’t really have to refer to my pencilled-in notes because I would simply remember them as I scrolled through the word file. That might be an editing charm—when I make the same edits twice—once on hardcopy and later in a digital file without referring to the hard copy.
When I got to the end of those pages, I printed everything off again and am now in the read-aloud stage, where I start with the first page and edit to my voice. It’s really slow. And a great way to memorize an entire book. And I often just go back to the pencilling in minor edits and also the scratching out of a long section and the writing of a new. It’s all very dynamic and though my process is methodical and linear, the fluidity of the actual writing is not.
This current project, being an unpunctuated long line is the most challenging edit I’ve ever attempted because I’m punctuating an entire poem with cadence. The pacing is embodied, entirely held in the ear and the voice, without any punctuation to guide needs every syllable, and every clause structure to go just the right way. Every word tugs on another so it’s a tight weave to mess with. Kind of like untangling lace or something. It might be impossible to ever get it just right. I’ll let you know!
I love your phrasing “the charm you hold close.” For me, it’s how the poem exists in my imagination when the page is put away and the laptop closed. When I close my eyes, what impression does the poem hold? Can I see it? Does it have an atmosphere, a texture, a colour? And most important, what is the gravitational noun the entire poem pulls to? If I can see this, if I can hang the entire poem on a single word, a concrete image, then I’m pretty certain the poem has a center. If I can’t, then I keep printing and note-taking and reading and resting it and returning until it can be held in my imagination as a defined thing.
As I’m sure you suspect by now, the most challenging part of revision remains finishing. Because the nature of a long poem is, in a way, to refuse an end. I’m good at listening to possibility and pluralities, what a poem might also be. But to commit to finishing is always the hardest part. Usually, I work myself to a point of exhaustion where I just don’t have the energy to refuse an ending any longer. Or something else has caught my attention and the ending becomes a necessity so I can move on. Or there’s a deadline, like the one you’ve given me for this interview. I have another idea tugging on me now for a next work, so I do need to finish up this one. Not ending really is my specialty.
TG: My mentorship with you was marvellously life-altering for me in so many ways, particularly the introduction of paper quilling into my poetic process—a suggestion you made! During the mentorship, you mentioned once that our work together has helped you with your own process for your current project. Could you discuss what your process is like now and how it has changed? What was unlocked for you?
JS: Though I can’t think of a specific example I know this is true because of the way your interview questions have ignited that same feeling of reflective clarity in me this week as I jotted and responded. Our conversation, present tense, helps me reflect on where I am, what I’m doing, how I got here, and where I might be going. Your refined openness, Tea, got me right from the start. The generosity of your responses in words, quilling, photographic image—it just all makes me braver in my work too.
Right now, I’m recalling the afternoon we sat together (in our different provinces) with all your pages before us and we worked as if at the same table considering all the poems you had created and we saw that certain groupings could be opened up and woven throughout the manuscript and we shuffled pages and we listened and shuffled some more. This generous listening and gazing together is where magic happens. I’ve had the same experience with my mentors—Sylvia Legris, Daphne Marlatt, Liz Philips—and it’s exhilarating. This intense listening over a page with another poet is how I’ve made my way completely as an artist. It’s where growth and risk happen, and ideally, if both parties are invested and listening, it’s never just one way.
TG: Paper quilling has reminded me of the importance of the process of building, of using the small individual piece to help the whole. How has your work with textiles influenced your writing practice?
JS: That’s a really beautiful way to connect quilling and writing. My work with textile has been on the level of thread. That single unspooling line is definitely akin to the unravelling webbed motion of the long poem. Creating that word cord that goes on and on. The multivocal braiding or twining of lines and voices. Maybe its helpful to think of the long poem as a loom. A frame for the warp and weft of multiple narrative strands to fall through each other and hold.
But my working with thread is not traditional either (I installed my pierced poems with a veil of thread falling through each hole). I can’t read a sewing pattern, I’m just in love with what a thread does. Was it the long poem that brought me to this aesthetic or the aesthetic that brought me to the long poem? Which informs which, the thread or the poem?
Installation artist and visual poet Anne Hamilton says that all stitching is an act that joins the “close-at-hand” to the “underneath-we-can’t-see.” “Stitching,” says Anne, “is a kind of suturing of the visible to the invisible.” I love to think of words this way. My pinholes, too. That act of trying to connect what is felt and seen right before us to what we can’t quite get at.
Lately I’ve been thinking about organic fibres, textual fibres, the fibres of the human body (textn.from the Latin textus means tissue,body, that which is woven webbed textured). Skin as the largest organ, the body as a type of cloth we wear, reach through. The intimacy of clothing, cloth, has been especially acute for me as I deal with my mother’s wardrobe. The personal scent a fibre holds. I took a weaving course a year ago and was so delighted to learn that the “hand” of a fabric is a term for the drape of a cloth. The hand of a cloth. That image of a hand reaching through.
TG: You taught me the importance of asking myself the question “how much do I reveal?” while revising my poems. How do you approach this question? How do you decide what remains the secret of your book or what needs to be released?
JS: Will I ever be aware of the secret in my work the way my poem is aware? Probably not. The gauge for what to say and what to protect is so personal and evolving. To paraphrase Robert Kroetsch, I hope that by carefully acknowledging my own concealment I will make way for the story. Thinking back to Anne Hamilton—push the needle through to that underside, that unknown. That is where the secret lives for me. I go there delicately. I feel as long as I’m reaching into that unknown—through language, through material exploration, through subject—then I’m touching it, I’m entering the atmosphere of some learning, some tension. The language I access from this exciting place—I trust this is what I am ready to learn. I guess rather than think in terms of what not to reveal, I trust the draw. Make make make, I say. Just keep making and you are in the secret of it all.
TG: Creating is often a solitary practice and since the pandemic, even more so. How have you fostered community during the pandemic? Has the pandemic changed your writing practice?
JS: I’m very solitary and intimate in my work and life so for the most part I maintain the rhythms and community connections as before, with just a bit more silence around everything.
But there have been shifts and opportunities. The week before the pandemic was announced, video artist Chantel Mierau and I shot a sewing circle duet using our twin Brother sewing machines. The collaboration was a first for us both and absolutely thrilling–unlike anything I’ve experienced before.
Then, shortly after, just before lockdown, I made a stop-motion typewriter poem with musician/poet/collage artist Christine Fellows that felt like the pinnacle of what a collaboration could be. It was such a gift to have these expansive experiences at a time when the world was narrowing. It was like a window had been thrown open on my usual solitary practice and voila—the wind that swept through took my breath away! There are so many skills they offered that I can’t, and maybe I offered something to them too. And in this way, I saw how collaboration was both magical and efficient. One person can’t do it all always. So, I think collaboration will be a major way to continue to foster community and to evolve as an artist.
In terms of artistic practice, I’ve built a light table and taken a hand-drawn animation workshop and have created a series of stop motion poem gifs, which is a new development in my work—animating poems digitally. I’m surprised by my energy for online and digital dissemination and do feel the way I share my work is changing.
There were a few weeks in the fall when we were allowed a guest or two on our property. I hosted a series of informal one-on-one bonfires with poet and artist friends and hope to continue these intimate conversations when we’re out of the polar vortex here and can share a fireside again. I’m not sure I would have carved time and space for such focused conversations like this if we weren’t in a pandemic, to be honest. That caring for community, that creating of space for intimate conversation, feels more poignant and fragile than ever.
I just had a vision of us continuing this chat by fireside one day too. Bring poems!
Interview by Tea Gerbeza (she/her), a disabled queer poet, writer and multimedia artist creating in Treaty 6 territory (Saskatoon, SK) and on the Homeland of the Métis Nation. Tea’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Release All the Words Stuck Inside You III, Room Magazine, antilang., and spring, among others. Find out more on teagerbeza.com.
Catherine Hunter is a writer who teaches at the University of Winnipeg. Her books include the poetry collection St. Boniface Elegies (Signature, 2019, winner of the Lansdowne Prize for Poetry; also short-listed for the Governor General’s award for poetry and the High Plains Book Award for poetry); the poetry collection Latent Heat (Signature, 1997, winner of the McNally Robinson Manitoba Book of the Year Award); the historical novel After Light (Signature, 2015, shortlisted for the High Plains Book Award for Fiction and four Manitoba Books Awards); and several literary mysteries with the Ravenstone line of Turnstone Press. Her most recent publication is the short story “Calling You” in Prairie Fire (Spring 2020).
Özten Shebahkeget:What advice would you give to yourself as an emerging writer?
Catherine Hunter: Leave that guy. Leave him right now.
ÖS: Has the pandemic had an effect on your writing practice? If yes, how so?
CH: Because teaching online is so time consuming, the pandemic effectively eliminated my writing practice for the first year. I hope to be able to resume it soon.
ÖS: You have served in the past as the acting chair of the Sociology department at the University of Winnipeg. I’m curious about your thoughts on the relationship between sociology and creative writing.
CH: I don’t really see much of a relationship there. My role in Sociology was completely administrative. I worked with the UW sociologists for two years, and learned a lot from them in conversations and by occasionally observing their classes or reading their articles. I learned a little bit about many different topics: the history of medicine, attitudes toward mental health, patterns of immigration, labour and museums, the evolving role of the family, the impact of public policy on health and safety (very interesting to think about during these pandemic days), and a bit of theory. Sociologists at the UW are vitally concerned with human rights and achieving equality in terms of economic security, health, and well being. It’s an honourable intellectual field. But it’s not my field. I was raised by radical activists who were deeply engaged in social justice issues, so those themes have always been present in my thinking and therefore in my writing. But what I’m doing isn’t sociology, or philosophy, or politics, or cultural studies, or theory. It’s art.
ÖS: You have been teaching creative writing at the University of Winnipeg since 1991. What has brought you joy during your time at UW? Do you find teaching aids your own practice?
CH: I don’t think teaching aids my own writing practice at all. In fact, it is a huge impediment because it eats up all my time. But teaching is not about me. It is about the students.
I had the great good fortune of an excellent education, and I took full advantage of the opportunity to spend years sharing seminar rooms with some of the best literary minds in the country. I’ve spent most of my life reading and writing and have studied a phenomenal amount of fascinating poetry and fiction, as well as literary theory and criticism in English. So, it’s only right that I should share what I’ve learned with others. As a teacher I try to encourage those who appreciate language and poems and story-telling, and to show them new avenues of exploration. It’s not just a job. It’s a service, passing along knowledge and skills from one human being to another, through the centuries. (That’s what you want to defund, Conservatives?) Mainly, I encourage all students to read more. If you had asked what advice would I give to an emerging writer other than myself, I would have said, first, read. But to be more specific, read deeply in the genres you’re writing in and read widely in other genres. Study the sentences. How are they made? What do they do? Read nonfiction to learn about different landscapes and climates, different types of sport and religion and science, different modes of travel. Learn the vocabulary of sailing and surgery and sorcery and silver mining.
For those talented students who respect the power of language and read deeply and are working hard to make poems and stories, I provide a space where they can experiment and meet other artists, a space where it’s not only okay to make art, it’s actually required. And for those students who don’t appreciate language very much, or for those who stumble into creative writing class by accident, with the mistaken notion that it’s easy, I provide examples of beautiful, intelligent, moving literature, often tailored to their particular interests. I point out the skills the writers used and encourage the students to make poems or stories of their own. I enjoy working with those inexperienced students just as much as I like working with the literary stars. To see somebody learn something new, to try a new skill and get results, is a source of joy. It could be a student figuring out that revising a sentence can make it stronger, discovering a new author they love, or realizing the artistic value of the legends their grandparents told them, or it could be a student winning a scholarship, getting published, or moving on to graduate school. All of those moments are occasions for joy.
I remember when I first applied to work here many years ago, I said in my letter that I strongly believe that all people, regardless of talent, can learn to express themselves more effectively, and I still believe that. Everyone can learn to think more creatively too. You don’t have to be a published author to benefit from becoming more articulate and leading a more creative life.
ÖS: What does your revision process look like when it comes to poetry? How do you know when a poem is finished?
CH: I keep a lot of notes. Mostly they are just jottings—sentences, jokes, descriptions of things I see, phrases that come to mind. These are scattered throughout a few different notebooks. I guess this is the pre-composition stage, rather than the revision stage, but it all seems like one long process to me. Once in a while a note will strike something in me, and I’ll start to expand on it. If it begins to spark new ideas or to draw other fragments toward it—there are usually connections to be made among the seemingly random fragments—I start to see the shape of the thing. Then I suppose the remaining work could be called revision. In revision, I try to define that shape more carefully. I’ll find a movement that makes sense (maybe from image to image or from question to question or through certain shifts in attitude or perspective, or just changing the subject). I’ll also try to find the form—for example, if it seems to be falling into couplets, I’ll try to turn it all into couplets just to see if that works or not. (I have one fairly long poem that began as a sestina and then I turned it into a series of sonnets. Eventually it became a free verse poem in five stanzas, but I can still see the traces of the sestina and the sonnets in there.) Maybe that kind of formal experimentation is revision. Maybe it’s just getting to know the poem. I’ll also try to get rid of redundancies, clarify vagueness, find more accurate words, read the thing out loud to listen to the rhythms and the sounds of the vowels and consonants, play with the line breaks, delete parts that seem out of place or irrelevant. I don’t think I ever consider a poem finished until someone gives me a deadline, and then, on the deadline date, it’s finished. I realize this is probably useless as writing advice. My revision process when it comes to fiction is much more intentional.
ÖS: Finally, what have you been working on lately?
CH: I’ve been working on some short stories, playing with structure and perspective, trying to braid or splice different story lines together. One of these stories, “Calling You,” was published in Prairie Fire last year (Spring 2020). The themes I’m working with are mainly illness, death, and grief. My husband suffered a long, debilitating illness and died about two years ago (that was when you were in my creative research class, Özten). In the wake of those experiences, I’m trying to look at the ways they affect our consciousness. The eerie gaps in time, the forgetting and misplacing of things, the mistakes, the hauntingly strange effects on the imagination (which I can’t yet describe)—all those human reactions to shock and loss. I want to try to recreate these effects in the narrative structure somehow. Since we’re approaching the end of the teaching year, I hope to resume those attempts again soon.
Interview by Özten Shebahkeget. Özten Shebahkeget is a member of Northwest Angle 33 First Nation. She holds a BA in English from the University of Winnipeg, and joined the MFA in Writing program at the University of Saskatchewan last fall. Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Fire and CV2 Magazine.
Trigger & Content Warning: Depression, thoughts of suicide.
When I’m in a depressive spell, I turn to art; whether it’s poetry or rolling paper strips and pinching them into designs, art is what helps me. The act of creation somehow offsets depression’s loop in my mind. Daniel Scott Tysdal’s recent chapbook MAD Fold-In Poems asserts a similar power in art by emphasizing poetic creation as the speaker’s method to garble depression’s cruel bark (Tysdal 33). MAD Fold-In Poems speaks to the complex, looping relationship depression has with the speaker and Tysdal frames the book between two direct addresses to depression:
You—this mucky fire slathered in my mind’s
frame—are as committed to me as artists are
to art. At times, your voice is constant—“kill
yourself, kill yourself, kill yourself”—fists
punching clay with the aim to make me nothing
more than punched clay. (7)
What strikes me here is that the fists are punching clay, a medium that can be formed and reformed, indicating that something can still be created even while depression lights a fire in our minds. Tysdal is clever in comparing the “mucky fire” (7) of depression to the commitment an artist has to their art, since art is exactly what unclenches depression’s clutch in the end.
The wavering lines in the poems are essential to understanding how to read Tysdal’s book. Inspired by Al Jaffee’s fold-in illustrations inside the back cover of MAD Magazine, Tysdal borrows the form for its capacity to reveal a punchline (36). As Tysdal explains, “the MAD fold-in poem is characterized by three features: 1) the poem does not end at the bottom of the page, 2) the reader completes the poem by making two vertical folds in the page, and 3) these folds reveal the final line of the poem nested within the original lines” (36). For accessibility reasons, the “fold-in” version of the final line is printed after each poem. The book’s form communicates that through the action of folding in, what is inside the bodymind is folded “out.” Through this “folding out,” the speaker can face what is inside them and create something from the findings. In “Gift,” Tysdal suggests that through the act of creation, we revive ourselves and continue on: “to give again, words to receive, unwrap within, and revive” (31). Poetry, then, becomes a tool in unwrapping what’s within, but it is the physicality of the fold-in that revives.
“Why bother writing a poem?” (17) Tysdal asks in “Make,” before contemplating in “Method”: “Why poem and not / historical novel or sky writing? Why bullet / and not pill or bridge? Are we destined, / born into our craft?” (25). Across poems, we are confronted with questions that are tied to the sinister and difficult reality of depression; however, even in this devastating truth, there is a shimmer of another, hopeful truth to be found in craft. In the creation of poems, Tysdal can, as “Gift’s” fold-in reveals:
The last “live” is accompanied by a colon, indicating that this poem, and the speaker’s life, is not over yet. The colon leads us into the closing poem, “A Mad Fold-In Poem,” which mirrors the poem that began the collection. In a nod to depression’s cycle, we’re suddenly looped back to the beginning; however, the poem does not linger in depression’s chorus this time. Instead, it gives rise to “another chorus” that “rises to surround you [depression]” (33). After this line, the poem changes its focus to how art and one’s community leads to love. The poem ends with:
the magic of bringing nib to page and penning life
with urgency and patience, word by word, with abandon
and care. Even though I know it can never silence you, I love
this inky trick because it fills the blank before you can, marks
up your script, swallows you choking in a page-mutating
fold, so your cruel barks, garbled, almost seem to say: (33)
Tysdal acknowledges that the speaker “can never silence” depression but can use poetry to “pen life” into themselves through the act of writing a poem. Poetry’s power becomes life-giving, an “inky trick” that fills “the blank before [depression] can, marks up [its] script” (33). The poem mutates depression’s cruelty with a fold that creates a chorus of love in its place. The sequential fold-in final lines center this love and community, make depression finally say:
This fold-in also suggests that love has always lived inside the poem, inside of us, even when depression makes us believe otherwise. Unfolding—or in the case of Tysdal’s poems, folding in—centers love, amplifies it louder than depression and society’s stigma against it. There is no period after “love,” demonstrating once more that love is what transcends, what continues.
MAD Fold-In Poems takes us on a journey through the harrowing reality of living with depression and its social stigma, while reminding readers of the importance of community, of sharing our art, and how in our craft—like in similar struggles of mental illness—“what we are we are together” (29). Tysdal teaches us that it is precisely in the act of folding in that we can unfold what’s there underneath, and what’s there is love.
*A note on the text: The quotes are formatted as closely as possible to the original text. However, some formatting could not be replicated due to WordPress constrictions.
Review by Tea Gerbeza (she/her), a disabled poet and paper quilling artist creating in Treaty 6 territory (Saskatoon, SK, Canada). She is a current MFA in Writing candidate at the University of Saskatchewan and holds a MA in English & Creative Writing from the University of Regina. Tea’s poetry has most recently appeared in antilang., Spring, and We Are One: Poems From the Pandemic. Her poems have won an Honourable Mention in the 2019 Short Grain Contest. Tea’s paper art can be found at @teaandpaperdesigns.
The long poem can be challenging to define as a genre. In “Pushing the Limits of Genre and Gender,” Lynn Keller makes a “partial list” of the form’s varieties, including: “narrative poems, verse novels, sonnet sequences, irregular lyric medleys or cycles, collage long poems, meditative sequences, extended dramatic monologues, prose long poems, serial poems, [and] heroic epics” (3). Despite its broad categorization, however, the long poem has, from its inception, been a vehicle for mapping the journeys of specific peoples and histories. From The Odyssey’s ten-year-long homecoming to The Divine Comedy’s pilgrimage, long poems provide the space and time to depict transformative trajectories. A long poem’s journey need not be geographical or even physical—Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s book of six long poems, Heavenly Questions, follows the path the bereaved embark upon when at the bedside of their dying loved one. Additionally, the voyage need not be linear or arrive at a conclusive “home.” Grappling with his worsening mental illness, the speaker of Stuart MacKinnon’s The Intervals admits that he is “an uncontrolled wanderer in [his own] body” (49). For MacKinnon, the long poem was the form best suited to wending along the path of a roving mind. But the long poem does not only depict migration; it is itself a migration.
By enacting the idea of migration on the page, the long poem becomes a corridor that moves both readers and writers “from room to succeeding room” of ideas (McLennan). In an interview for The Paris Review, Anne Carson describes the poem as “an action of the mind captured on a page,” suggesting that the reader enters into that action through the process of reading and that “by the time [they] get to the end, [they’re] different than [they] were at the beginning” (Aitken 203). The long poem links these actions of the mind, increasing the depth and breadth of the possible journey through excess and digression, documentary and accumulation. My own work in the form became a process of gathering in and spreading out, even as I returned again and again—more deeply, with greater concentration, or from new angles—to a central idea. Tim Lilburn names this central idea a poet’s “preoccupation or lasting, persistent loyalty or yearning” and suggests that the long poem “can look like transformative power, a large story—visionary recital—of many parts that pulls readers in and stretches them” (“The Long Long Poem”). The long poem traces the poet’s pursual of a lifelong preoccupation over the course of an extended and ongoing transformation, and it carries readers along the same path.
The two major anthologies of Canadian long poems, The Long Poem Anthology and The New Long Poem Anthology, include statements from their authors, and many discuss the long poem in relation to movement, or as a demonstration of passage and process. According to Michael Ondaatje, long poems “show a process of knowledge, of discovery during the actual writing of the poem” (13). Robert Kroetsch suggests that this process depicts the passage of “the self returning from the self” (312). Both writers imply here that the experience of engaging with the long poem, as reader or writer, is frenetic and ongoing—“not the having written, but the writing” (311). To Don McKay, “the long poem is an imaginative space… a time for meditation, travel, metamorphosis, loitering” (321), while Daphne Marlatt describes the form as “a movement around, based in return” (317). The emphasis these poets place on the long poem’s peripatetic nature solidifies the ways in which the long poem can invite readers into a metamorphic process or migratory journey.
While the long poem’s journey does not always resolve with an ultimate destination, migration does raise the question of home. The homeplace is certainly a focus for seminal Canadian long poems such as Steveston, Seed Catalogue, and Long Sault, in which Daphne Marlatt, Robert Kroetsch, and Don McKay parody the idea of the traditional, heroic epic (Brandt 250), while simultaneously asserting that B.C. fishing villages, rural Albertan farms, and small towns along the St. Lawrence Seaway are each worthy of a long and epic attention. These and other Canadian long poems function as myth-making texts, impacting readers’ understanding of Canada as a homeplace and “form[ing] our consciousness of the past” (McMahon 74). As such, these texts can hold significant cultural weight and can persuasively support aspects of pervading societal thought.
At the same time, in offering multiple, fragmented, and contradictory historical accounts from an array of voices, the long poem form can also work to undermine and resist systems of power. Susan Stanford Friedman draws attention to the exclusionary politics at work in the genre, writing that “big-long-important poems have assumed the authority of the dominant cultural discourses” (10). By taking this “big-long-important” form into their own hands, marginalized writers have radically challenged and re-centred Canadian discourse on history and place. Louise Halfe’s Blue Marrow, for example, rewrites the “Lord’s Prayer,” translating the religious words of the colonizer into Cree and invoking the voices of her grandmothers. In Debbie: An Epic, Lisa Robertson upends expectations of the heroic subject, “dispers[ing] the tropes of the traditional epic so that the ancient male politics of Virgil’s Aeneid undergo a female subversion” (MacEachern). In a similar vein, Sue Goyette retells The Odyssey from Penelope’s grieving and rage-filled perspective in Penelope in First Person. With its wide scope and “long look” (Ondaatje 12), a long poem can both document particular places as well as challenge dominant understandings of those places.
The act of reading or writing a long poem is an act of migration, and through the process of departure and return, the long poem transforms, unearthing and discarding and cultivating ideas of home. Barry McKinnon writes that the poem “helps us build up ‘new little habitats’ in the detritus and helps us live because it also contains our affirmation, hope, and joy” (368). The roaming spirit that runs through a long poem constructs, along the way, hopeful little habitats, which are found and lost, left and returned to over the course of the poem’s migratory route. The long poem extends, embarks, but always returns to the question of home.
Aitken, Will. “Anne Carson, The Art of Poetry No. 88.” The Paris Review, no. 171, 2004, pp. 191-226.
Brandt, Di. “The Multi-genre Multimedia Disjunctive Poetic Narrative Dream Text: ‘New Epic’ Attentions in Contemporary Canadian Experimental Writing.” Green Matters: Ecocultural Functions of Literature, edited by Maria Löschnigg and Melanie Braunecker. Brill: Leiden, 2019.
Friedman, Susan Stanford. “When a ‘long’ poem is a ‘big’ poem: Self-authorizing strategies in women’s twentieth-century ‘long poems’.” Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory, vol. 2, no. 1, 1990, pp. 9-25.
Goyette, Sue. Penelope in First Person. Gaspereau Press Limited, 2017.
Halfe, Louise. Blue Marrow. McClelland & Stewart, 1998.
Keller, Lynn. Forms of Expansion: Recent Long Poems by Women. University of Chicago Press, 1997.
The Red Files, Lisa Bird-Wilson’s 2016 poetry collection, deserves renewed attention for the honesty and grace with which it examines the truth of Indigenous intergenerational trauma and the healing possible in the course of reconciliation. The collection is artistically nuanced and skilful, and emotionally and psychologically complex. It continues to be relevant: socially, inviting our collective, on-going engagement in Canada’s truth and reconciliation process, and artistically, demonstrating poesis, the transformation of absence into presence.
Family snapshots of relatives who attended residential schools sparked the book’s concept, in the context of the cultural genocide residential schools perpetrated. Of individuals lost, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation reckons “the number of children identified by name, as well as unnamed in death records, is about 4,200” (Mussa CBC.ca). Black-and-white institutional photos appear on the book’s covers while images Bird-Wilson found in Ottawa’s General Synod Archives of the Anglican Church of Canada provide the collection’s frame.
The literary practice of ekphrasis has come to mean verbal reflections on visual art materials. However, Bird-Wilson’s use of the rhetorical device is also reminiscent of the original Greek. According to Ruth Webb, “To compose an ekphrasis is to tell (phrazo) in full (ek)” (Webb 13). Bird-Wilson does so, with a tonal range the material merits, from the poignant to the pejorative to the possible, while evoking the inherent difficulty caused by cultural erasure.
The title of TheRed Files refers to the Canadian Government’s naming system for documents related to residential schools. While the tragedy’s nameless, numbered students are the primary focus of Part One, Parts Two and Three wide-angle the lens to encompass the Canadian Government’s systemic genocide from first contact annihilation and starvation policies as in “Daybird” (“white men / standing like sterile hunters / atop mountains / of bleached buffalo skulls”) to the deliberate undermining of Indigenous cultural continuity through and beyond residential schools, to the Sixties Scoop, to, despite the Apology, “this / thing that is still in the doing” (61, “The Apology” 56).
The Red Files was nominated for the Saskatchewan Book Awards’ poetry category in 2017. Herself a child of the Sixties Scoop—a government scheme begun in the 60s that removes Indigenous children from their mothers for adoption into non-Indigenous homes—Lisa Bird-Wilson is an award-winning Métis and nêhiyaw writer of prose and poetry widely published in Canadian literary journals and anthologies. Her artistic and leadership contributions, particularly to the Ânskohk Aboriginal Writers’ Circle and the Saskatchewan Aboriginal Literacy Network, garnered her the Saskatchewan Arts Board’s 2018 RBC Emerging Artist Award. Bird-Wilson’s fourth book and debut novel, Probably Ruby, is forthcoming in August 2021 through Doubleday Canada.
The Red Files, her first book of poetry, features a voice that finely modulates and models being “glad for speaking the truth” and variously uses bilingualism—Cree words appear amid English in titles and text—and multiple poetic forms: free verse, prose poem, and, in one notable example of found poem form, erasure (“Hundreds of Boys—A Response” 45).
In “The XXXX’s Situation,” Bird-Wilson exposes the Government’s cover-up of a residential school’s travesty by adding quotes and lineation to an archival letter to the Superintendent of Education, Indian Affairs, effectively co-opting a censored and redacted Government document under the guise of poetic erasure (46).
Regardless of form, her poetics organically serve her subject’s stories and themes, making the absent present and the invisible seen. As in “Girl with the Short Hair,” (“it’s in her bones to lope under the prairie sky … / … / for miles in all directions now this is more like it there she is, the breathless one the one with the wind-knotted hair” 16), the prose poem enacts, in part through assonance and rhythm, the transformation that recognition of identity confers. In poems such as this, Bird-Wilson’s poetry embodies what specialist in Aboriginal literature and creative writing, Warren Cariou, envisions in the spirit of reconciliation: that the verbal quality inherent in the act of poetic creation, regardless of the origin of the term poesis, moves “across the lines of class and race and epistemology toward something more elemental in us all …” (Cariou 32).
The Red Filesis vibrant with metaphor, rhythm, assonance, alliteration, pun, irony, enjambment, and imagery like “against his antler-velvet skin” (“‘Within the Circle of Civilized Conditions’” 29). In Bird-Wilson’s hands, these devices convey the tension between cultural invisibility and visibility, absence and presence, and the dignity of agency, love, spirit, voice. She even applies poetics to punctuation.
When rare punctuation is used, it emphasizes declarative colonial entitlement. For example, the sentence, “Saturday is his day to take / a boy.” opens “The Finest in the Dominion” (26). Enacting absence, many poems have no end-line (except the occasional em-dash) and no final punctuation, perhaps mirroring the continuing ramifications of cultural genocide and intergenerational trauma. In “The Apology,” for example, “the story endures— / a sucking wound” (57).
The collection’s launch occurred just after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final December 2015 report with its ninety-four Calls to Action, including the Canadian Government’s still un-adopted UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
One achievement of The Red Files is that it dares to make palpable not only truths of the traumas Indigenous peoples experienced from genocide and attempted genocide, but it conveys the vulnerability of Bird-Wilson’s own questioning around the process of reconciliation. The collection continues to invite readers, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to experience parallel journeys. In “Sweep,” one of the final poems, the speaker says, “I have to live with the memory: …/ and the question/ what does it mean to be full of grace/ … and make things out of your hands” (75).
Bird-Wilson, Lisa. The Red Files. Nightwood Editions, 2016.
Cariou, Warren. “Edgework: Indigenous Poetics as Re- Placement.” Indigenous Poetics in Canada, edited by Neal McLeod, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2014.
Webb, Ruth. “Ekphrasis Ancient and Modern: The Invention of a Genre.” Word & Image, vol. 15, no. 1, Jan. 1999, pp. 7–18. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1080/02666286.1999.10443970.
Susie Hammond is an emerging Seattle-based Canadian poet, and University of Saskatchewan MFA in Writing 2020 graduate. She is the 2019-2020 Edney Masters Scholar for International Understanding Through the Humanities and Fine Arts, with residencies from The Banff Centre, Catalonia’s Faber, and France’s Musée National de Préhistoire. She’s an editor, youth mentor, Community of Writers poetry alum, and Yes! Poetry’s October 2020 Poet of the Month.