as Anishinaabe audience member in a Poetry Community (that truly works at doing/being better)
by waaseyaa'sin Christine Sy
there was this guest (and celebrated) poet last night who opened their poem with a chant.
my first thought was appropriation; the first sound (which didn’t get past my lips): ugh
i felt guilty for thinking appropriation right off the hop. for jumping to you-think-you-know-so-much so quick. i told my intuition AND gut to “simmer down. give the poet a chance. quit being so quick to assess, conclude, curl your lip, raise your eyebrow. you are not Elvis. it’s likely European Indigenous Knowledge. likely one of their own ancestral songs.”
i listened as they made their way around the world utilizing all the cultural, animalistic and mythological tools of poetic imagery they could to illuminate their idea, art, spirit, aesthetic; their effort to bring us into their world of one love one earth
(at this point, i think i may be collapsing the suite of poems they performed)
i thought Gwendolyn McEwyn. this poet could win a Gwendolyn McEwyn award. i thought i should send them the link. Then, nah. they’re not giving any land back.
i did my best to be balanced: they have a good voice, an engaging stage presence and a flipped up collar that works well and is trying to make me want to slowly gyrate my hips and raise my arms, hang my head and then maybe howl at the moon but you are not Elvis and this is not hot, not cool. it is not sexy. you are not a wolf or an antler coming out of a head. you are a bear. you are a bear in bear country. a bear in bear country whose eyebrow is raised.
when non-Indigenous (un)celebrated poets utilize Indigenous knowledge or cultural forms in their art and (know) it is wrong and then perform integrity and responsibility by declaring “YES! that was [insert the name and kind of Indigenous cultural form]. the meaning is very complicated and it’s so complicated I can’t tell you anything about it other than to say [insert Indigenous Nation] Elders gave it to me and they said I could use it. yes, it’s so complicated I am going to move to the next poem whereby I continue to appropriate Indigenous tropes and wax oblique about maybe being Indigenous but for sure I come from ancestry that worked hard to clear the land in the North a long time ago”
(at this point of witnessing this great acrobatic maneuvering and fumbling, i think ahhhh. maybe they didn’t know this poetry community is one that is striving to do/be better and so they, in turn, are striving to be, er, are performing an effort to be better.)
when they tell us they’re tight with Elders from some far away Nation; tell us the song, chant, chantsong is so complicated it’s too complicated to elaborate on and deny sharing even a morsel of the secret, mysterious, hard to get knowledge held within the Indigenous language of the chantsongchant in their poem
why they are special and we are not
when non-Indigenous poet does not name the Indigenous peoples they live with or work with or the Indigenous lands they most definitely occupy but appropriate the cultural forms and knowledges of Indigenous Nations from far away and then say “I’m not going to explain the songchantsong to you but the way I give back to that Nation for letting me use their knowledge and cultural form is by informing you that they are fighting for their sovereignty because the U.S. is bad and you should go learn about it. Know history!”
when an Indigenous person, at the end of the night, approaches the deer wolf howling singing poet and says “hey” because they still want to extend the benefit of the doubt, they still want their assessment to be off: surely you are not an exploiter, appropriator, colonizer. maybe a quick exchange to ‘sess this out will confirm whether you are or are not…or to what degree you are or are not
when non-Indigenous poets exoticize, make mysterious, make inaccessible, and use Indigenous cultural forms and knowledges to advance their own art or use tropes to veil their own identity but remain aloof when an Indigenous person stands before them
(at this point, i think i may be exhausted with trying to find evidence that proves colonization is not happening here)
when an Indigenous person standing before them signals geographic and artistic proximity and shamelessly drop names to determine how well they know Indigenous artists where they live because if they’re tight with Elders way the heck over there and are supposedly advancing the sovereignty work of Indigenous peoples way the heck over there, surely they have some familiarity or working relationship with the Indigenous Elders and artists where they live, supporting these Elders or artists in their agendas, too,
here, where they live.
when energy shifts at the naming of fierce artists that may be mutual colleagues/peers/friends/collaborators because this wolf, this deer, this special person with this complicated Indigenous knowledge and access to cultural forms from way the heck over there doesn’t run in the same circles here,
when your gut and intuition are in sync with the first utterance of their chant
on just this side of moving to the same territory the guest-poet happens to live in and leaving the Mississauga wintering grounds that have become a home to me and nidannis, i get sentimental, having many sentiments about this place and all the breathing holes i’ve been gifted here. an invitation to read some poetry is extended and it coaxes these sentiments to coagulate, hopefully turning them into something performable. thankfully, within hours of receiving the invitation, “A Poem Title” jumps out.
taking a moment to experience itself in this world, it suddenly begins to gyrate and laugh way-the-heck-out-loud. it revels in its own (im)perfection, its own wittiness, its own exact and complicated truth. it introduces itself to a few people of various social locations and senses of propriety: “Hi there, I’m _________”. It receives a wink of “Ha! I getchu” and a slow, smirking head-nod. “A Poem Title” is also anxious. there are only a few more weeks before it can get itself to page, to be something worthy of taking up space here, in poetry world; something to be spoken and lilted into the world; something that breathes.
“A Poem Title” hangs around.
it says, “Hella. I need to go out.”
“A Poem Title” walks into the bar, pulls up a seat, orders a Corona, chitty-chats, listens, and casts scores on a dry erase board raised high up to the rafters. in the midst of loving this poetry community that strives to do and be better and is in fact better, it tilts its head at what sounds to be the poetic anti-thesis of this community. it thinks itself a loyal dog, a a wolf, a coyote hearing the various frequencies of the antithetical pitch of these poems here in this anti-colonial, decolonizing community. it looks around to see how the frequency is landing in this space. it wonders how song chant songchant howlingwolf growingdeerantler hawkblessing fullmoon oneloveoneearthlove got here. it blinks. it inhales. exhales. “A Poem Title” closes its eyes and bows its head for a moment of silence
a moment of silence
a moment of breathe,
and then suddenly,
A Poem Title
flips up its collar
opens its eyes
raises its head
smiles a wide-ass smile
drums its feet on the hardwood floor
stretches and shakes its arms and hands to the skies
sounds out a zaasaakwe
and shouts its name
way the heck out
“fuck you Peterborough, i love you!”
“European Indigenous Knowledges” is a term coined by Pegi Eyers in her book Ancient Spirits Rising (2015). I hyperlinked to this book because the phenomenon of appropriating Indigenous knowledges (and other awful things) needs to stop and Eyers makes a significant and impressive effort toward supporting this end. I’ve included what I wrote about Eyers’ book for those who would like more insight, from one Indigenous perspective:
“Ancient Spirits Rising: Reclaiming Your Roots and Restoring Faith Community … is a comprehensive, candid, and critical foray into the problem of Settler spiritual loss and Settler appropriation of Indigenous spiritual practices in Turtle Island. Exemplifying what it means to genuinely listen to Indigenous peoples in the lands she calls home, Eyers takes seriously the cue offered by Anishinaabe Elder James Dumont that all humans have Indigenous knowledges for which they are responsible for recovering and practicing. This is the solution to appropriation of Indigenous spiritual practices. Written for a white Settler population who are seeking a critical and ethical spiritual practice in Indigenous lands, Ancient Spirits Rising unabashedly tackles multiple issues common in a variety of spiritual practices while offering resolution through the reclaiming of European Indigenous Knowledges (EIKs). Eyers is transparent in her intentions and deeply engaged in advancing one of many important paths required to live ethically, critically, and spiritually in a world that is shaped by Empire but is not finitely determined by it. While the link between Settler spiritual restoration on Turtle Island based on EIKs and Indigenous sovereignty movements and material inequities in Turtle Island are not punctuated, this book is an excellent example of the generative and life-affirming possibilities that are created when Indigenous peoples of reputable practice are sincerely listened to and when Settlers are genuinely oriented towards developing their own earth-based spiritual practices in Turtle Island. It is a timely and much needed articulation of critical settler thought on spirituality in Turtle Island. I hope it contributes in positive ways for generating good life for all humans and the natural world and encourages a commitment to engaging in reparations with Indigenous peoples in spheres beyond the spiritual.”
Addendum: There are good people, nice people in Peterborough. I broadly understand good people, nice people, through a bundle of questions: do they put a critical analysis and awareness of colonization and decolonization to practice? Do the do it Every. Single. Day? Or, at least try to? Do they advance this critical analysis, awareness, and/or practice in public ways with the intention to proliferate this decolonization (as opposed to being simply performative gestures)? Do they practice this in their private lives beginning with self and their relationships? Do they divest of the powers and/or privileges that they accrued from through colonization–historical and in the present–or use the benefits of colonization to advance decolonial goals as defined by Indigenous peoples?
The Peterborough Poetry Collective includes people whose work/practice aligns with aspects of this bundle of questions. I know this because I know some of this community. I also feel and hear this work when I’ve attended their monthly slams and hear of their work in this capacity or beyond this community (or work with them beyond this community). The poetry slams and slam space feels safe (the bartender is also down with all the good, nice things). The sense I get from this community is that there is the expectation of being accountable to colonial-decolonial realities and processes. I say this because they acknowledge that they are living and working in Mississauga Anishinaabe territory; they declare that it is stolen land; the content of the poetry reflects this spirit; they recognize that the nature of the subjects being presented may be triggering and invite people to do what they need to to take care of themselves; and, they appeal to the spiritual/creative and invigorating energy of poetry by opening with a moment of silence followed by a loud, raucous shout-out. They have a good time. They hold space. I suspect some, if not all, know how to do relationship really well–the tough parts. This is a place I enjoy coming to and being with friends in–whereas I would hesitate to invite friends to many social spaces in Peterborough, I would not hesitate to invite them here. This is the kind of place I want my kid to be a part of when she grows up. These are the kind of people I want her to have relationship with.
I wrote this blog as a response/intervention to colonization by poetry that occurred with the guest poet I refer to but whom I don’t name. There’s no need to name them because I see their methods as being characteristic of the colonial project, in general: appropriation; othering; exoticizing; making Indigenous culture mysterious; constructing false demarcations of (in)accessibility to Indigenous knowledges or cultures; suggesting special outsider status; claiming Indigenous identity and doing so vaguely; using Indigenous anything as a crutch to support identity claims; erasing/denying/failing to name colonization; tapping into some collective primal being that is supported by Indigenous anything from anywhere while erasing/denying colonization and Indigenous peoples where you live; kumbaya-ing all of us around a fire, beneath a moon, or in a canoe, assuming we all want this, and distancing, snubbing, or becoming aloof if we don’t want to be included in the kumbaya. These methods sustain the colonial project and much poetry (or literature or art) has flourished (despite) using them; flourished unabashedly, without care or concern for Indigenous peoples, our lands, or the fact they are stolen.
For me, while the poets’ work was problematic in so many ways, there was a distinct fissure between their work and the work of the poetry community I feel I know to some degree. I hope this community (whom I’m fairly sure includes some who have read this but have not responded) takes this post to heart and thought. I think there is enough trust and familiarity there between us to do that in a good way. I hope they utilize it to advance or re-visit their decolonial work. The bottom line is decolonial spaces and decolonial work cannot be (or becomes distorted) if poets in that space are engaging in appropriation of Indigenous knowledges or cultural forms in questionable ways, are perpetuating bastardized tropes to claim some kind of Indigenous identity, or are not being called in/called out on these forms of colonization.
Post-Addendum: About a day and a half after posting this blog, a member of the Peterborough Poetry Collective contacted me via messenger. As suspected, their community is engaged in on-going processes to be and do better in terms of decolonization (my word to describe their work; it may not be the word they use to describe their work). They were thankful for this post and take these matters seriously. I was invited to share any ideas regarding how to attend to some of these issues. I did. I was told that this post and these ideas will be included in their on-going discussions on the work they are doing. So, today, the good, nice relationships continue, the dialogue remains open, and the work, having always been done, shifts ever so slightly.
And, so, of course, does poetry.