This interview took place in March 2014
Waaseyaa’sin Christine Sy (WCS): In your latest publication, Unearthed (Leaf Press, 2011), you pay homage to the Coast Salish peoples in whose lands you are a long-time visitor to/dweller in, and acknowledge their lands as informing much of your poetry. You also hold strong to your Mohawk-ness-Tuscarora-ness, the landscapes of your native home, and maintain loyalty to the idea of reclaiming these languages. What are the tensions and possibilities that exist for your creative work, being as you say a “transplanted import/West Coast Mohawk/on Coast Salish Territory”?
Janet Marie Rogers (JMR): First and foremost, I’m not sure I would have chosen the path of a writer if it weren’t for “transplanting” myself to the west coast. I didn’t take up the pen until 2 years after I moved here (in 1994). I had a budding career as a visual artist when I lived in Toronto (for 13 years) and thought that would be the trajectory of my life. However it’s probably important to note that I was born in Vancouver, the traditional lands of the Musqueum, Squamish and Tsliel-waututh nations. So the decision to move to the west, away from my Haudenosaunee territory made sense. I was re-claiming a home. And if it wasn’t for the many gifts and ways in which the land accepted me upon my arrival, coupled with the very welcoming way in which the Coast Salish people embraced me, I probably wouldn’t have stayed for 20 years. There have been tensions, in the beginning, due to the fact that I vibrate so strongly as a Haudenosaunee person, and back then I was unaware of protocols both known and unspoken. I had organized a women’s artist collective in the early years and we had a great, very active run for 5 years producing very innovative exhibitions. Simply put, some of the members from a northern nation took offense to my leadership and broke ties with the collective in an unnecessarily damaging manner.
In my writing, the relationship I have with this land is uninterrupted by petty jealousy or power struggles. The protocols I have learned and those I have created allow me to continue to be inspired by this territory, which feeds the creativity within my written work.
WCS: When I need to draw strength on particularly (literary) weary days, I think of Anishinaabe women like Susan Johnston and her daughter Jane Schoolcraft, bilingual storytellers and published poet, respectively; I think of Mohawk writer and performer E. Pauline Johnson; and, I think of the more contemporary Indigenous women trail blazers in literature: Maria Campbell (Métis), Jeanette Armstrong (Okanagan), Rita Joe (Mi’kmaw, deceased), and Lee Maracle (Sto:lo). I wonder how these women navigate(d) the weary moments they face(d) in moving life through their literatures and wonder what invigorating moments they had/have. What are moments you navigate as writer, Indigenous writer, Mohawk-Tuscarora woman writer?
JMR: The relationship with the spirit(s) that inform, influence and inspire my writing invigorates me every time. In the moments when inspiration strikes, it feels like a voice of truth, it feels like divine assistance, it feels like birthday presents. In the moments and constructive literary lines I am empowered to braid and twist and mash together rhythmwords. I do not grow weary of any of it. It is all inspiration all the time. And it’s not just for me; I am making a cake, I hope you too will enjoy the flavor, the texture, the look of it and I hope it will nourish you too.
WCS: You’ve indicated your affinity for and connection to poet E. Pauline Johnson and have been compared to her by other Indigenous writers such as Daniel David Moses. Many of your poems—their length, their narration, the authoritative voice they echo (a voice grounded in deep ecological, cultural, and spiritual consciousness), and your practice of and commitment to orality—make me think of the Peace Maker and The Great Law of Peace. Thoughts?
JMR: If I begin to write about the multiple parallels between my life and that of E. Pauline Johnson it could take up a bit of space. I’m still doing my best to understand it. However, I can say with confidence, I feel I am continuing to do the work she began as a stage writer/presenter, which we dub as spoken word today. Her physical life ended at the age of 51 in Vancouver. I am now 51 and was born in Vancouver, so I am interested to see, as much as anyone, where the literary road goes from here. It’s like I have been running in unison alongside Pauline, and now I will take an independent route to “who knows where” in my career. And “Yes” the comparison to what I do as a spoken word artist and my peoples’ rich history as orators is not lost on me. But I cannot claim to have conscientiously chosen to present my work in this cannon. I was not an eager performer of my words. The words demanded it of me. In doing so, my writing found a way to stand out, be heard, gain attention and create a presence within a community (Victoria BC) that is crowded with literary talent. I am very pleased to have been awarded the title of Victoria’s Poet Laureate (2012-2015).
WCS: Speaking of which, you are a prolific creator, a contemporary Sky Woman: Victoria’s Poet Laureate, radio show host, Indigenous cultural critic, publisher, and a poet who produces her work in the written form, in spoken word, and in video. In the story of Haudenosaunee creation, my understanding is that Sky Woman had many helpers who supported her in creating the world and creating/sustaining/growing life. Who are the helpers of Indigenous women today in creating the world, creating/sustaining/growing new life? Who needs to step up, or at least, quit interfering?
JMR: As Indigenous women we know we have a long row of ancestors with us at all times to draw strength from and who have sustained similar difficulties in their lives. We know we can call upon these female agents for guidance and direction; at least that’s what I do. As well, we host these ancestors within us and everything we need to know is also within us. So in terms of stepping up or interfering, I would say we need to trust ourselves more and take our egos, self-doubts, intelligent reasoning out of the way and go with our instincts and intuition. No one has ever been steered wrong by trusting the truth within us. Academia can be a wonderful place to develop critical thinking, but I would never place that over a “gut-feeling”.
WCS: Gender and gender dynamics between men and women and between women figure in both of your collections. What are some of the key issues that need to be resolved between the genders and between women (in Indigenous or non-Indigenous worlds)?
JMR: Respectfully, I subscribe to an indigenous ideology of a multiple gender reality.
WCS: How does this reality inform or manifest in your poetry?
JMR: Well I can only write from a perspective I know and am familiar with and I have to confess to some element of self-therapy taking place when I focus my writing on addressing or at least reflecting back into a larger literary context. So as a hetero-sexual (albeit non-practicing one a majority of the time) within a physical realm, my creative soul is one which contains all the genders and it is from there that the most potent work is derived. Just as the Indigenous idea of “who/what” Creator is exists comfortably without gender assignment, I believe the truest artist voice is that which can transcend the limiting borders of male/female gender. For now, my poems can serve as reflections of my limited insights into the whole girl/boy thing. My goal and perhaps that of any artist is to create from a place that produces non-gender specific work.
WCS: One of my mentors, non-Indigenous cultural historian Carol J. Williams, taught me that learning about what’s inside of a book begins with an engaged, thoughtful reading of the book cover. I was pleased to see the words of two veteran Indigenous writers in review of Unearthed. Admittedly, I like to see the uplifting of our literary worlds occurring vis-à-vis the momentum of our readings of each other. I also have to say that my curiosity is always piqued when texts labeled as Indigenous literature have book covers inscribed with the words of primarily non-Indigenous thinkers. What are your thoughts about Indigenous and/or non-Indigenous reviewing of Indigenous literature? Other thoughts about the state of cultural review/criticism of Indigenous literature specifically, or art generally?
JMR: In terms of reviews, I would first consider the intention of the review before who is reviewing i.e. a promotional review compared to a critical review compared to an academic review, etc. I believe all reviews create opportunities where literature and the arts in general are discussed and this practice is good for the arts and helps us to better understand our identity as Indigenous peoples (i.e. the arts are/always have been a significant defining factor of who we are). When non-indigenous writers review indigenous literature the review serves to define the non-indigenous to indigenous relationship more than anything. It serves to help us as indigenous writers understand how the non-indigenous reader relates to our work, nothing more.
WCS: What book do you think will change Canada? How might it accomplish this?
JMR: Change it how? Who cares?
WCS: Ha! Indeed. I was thinking though that if changing the nation is a serious endeavour (as the Idle No More movement suggests) and if this change might be prompted by one book (as CBC Canada Reads suggests) and if one Indigenous person can have a say about that and be heard (as Wab Kinew has been about The Orenda), then what would the conversation look like if more Indigenous people had a say? What book would they choose and why? In this spirit, I’d like to invite you to re-visit the question, wholly respecting that your answer may remain the same.
JMR: I took another run at this question but can not find inspiration or take interest in wanting to change “Canada” as it is not a nation but a corporation registered in Washington, DC. I might ask, what books are on record as having initiated or encouraged change throughout occupied/colonized lands called countries?
WCS: Your truth speaking reverberates strongly in and out of poetic spaces. In Unearthed and the sample poems from Peace In Duress I read, your poetry fiercely names and engages the political and social context Indigenous peoples are and have been negotiating in Canada both inside and outside our communities. It calls-out and calls-in dynamics that diminish Indigenous life in relentless, magnificent ways, much like the awesome, humbling mountains, skies, waters, and cedars you portray into your work. What evidence do you see that suggests that Canada is/Canadians are hearing or not hearing these truths and are doing something effectual about it?
JMR: I find the word “Canadian” repugnant. Other than it being a descriptive word connected to one’s geographical location, I have yet to understand and have others who identify as such, explain to me what exactly “Canadian” is and what it is formed from culturally. So to consider how anyone or any community identifying as such, is effected by or reacting to my work is not a priority for me. My focus is based in a current and possibly a deeper relationship to land and territory. My writing celebrates that relationship and inspires the reader to also consider their place and relationship with their territories.
WCS: In an online interview with Jorges Alleros (Black Coffee Poet, 2011) about Unearthed, you share that your three collections of poems are like siblings. How does your forthcoming collection, Peace in Duress (Talon Books), figure into these family relations? How will it complement, be in conflict with, enhance, or depart from its siblings?
JMR: Good question. As each book is published, it’s like watching the young ones grow up. I’m not sure how many more books I will produce. In fact, I’m considering not producing work in print after Peace in Duress, and only working in performance, readings, audio and video. But with each book there is a maturation in the writing certainly and I believe, as I mature I am able to take the years of experience within the activist community, the female communities, the arts communities, etc. and dance with those words better. For example, the first books, the self-produced chapbooks were like songs strummed on a guitar, the published books are well produced, radio-ready music and the next book along with the performance, audio and media components create a full surround sound experience with literary layers that live in multiple galaxies unto themselves.
WCS: Janet, nia:wen for inspiring with your poetic voice and thought. To borrow your striking term, “rhythmwords” from the land over here, close to your Haudenosaunee home, say that the snow is melting, waters are trickling and freezing and trickling again, and the maple sap waits patiently to flow unhindered by cold days. What of the Musqueaum Squamish and Tsliehl-waututh land is inspiring your Mohawk-Tuscarora heart over there, this spring?
JMR: The 20 years I have lived on the west side of the Turtle, I have never gotten used to or grown fond of the rain. When it falls (and it does so often) it falls in such an irreverent manner, it seems to take precedence over all things including daily agendas, emotional states of being, appetite, motivation, etc. I came here for the ancient trees, not the sea, but the two are synonymous. I have less affection for the freezing temperatures and snow conditions of the east, so the west protects me from those harrowing elements. I’m also here for the air. It is cleansed hourly by the salty molecules of the ocean and lifts away most pollutants. I get drunk on the stuff. The sunsets here rival any picture postcards from more exotic locales. This is a visually stunning place. The trees have voice here. I love that when our drum leader was asking (his spirits) to name our drum, they replied “Standing Nation” in honour of the tree nations that live here.
Janet is a Mohawk/Tuscarora writer from the Six Nations band in southern Ontario. She has three published poetry collections to date; Splitting the Heart (Ekstasis Editions 2007), Red Erotic, (Ojistah Publishing 2010), Unearthed (Leaf Press 2011). Her poetry CDs Firewater (2009), Got Your Back (2012) and 6 Directions (2013) all gained nominations for best spoken word recording at the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards, the Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards and the Native American Music Awards. Some of Janet’s work may be accessed online. Peace in Duress will be published September 2014 by Talon Books.
Waaseyaa’sin Christine Sy is Ojibway Anishinaabe of mixed ancestry from the Treaty 3 area in Northwestern Ontario and Bawating (Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario) and presently resides in Williams Treaty (1923) area in Southern Ontario with her daughter. She affirms and promotes Anishinaabe life through multiple literary forms (i.e. poetry, short prose, short story, spoken word, storytelling) and photography. She is the winner of Briarpatch’s 2nd Annual Short Story Creative writing (fiction) contest (2013) and is the co-editor of Matrix Magazine’s first dossier of new Indigenous writing (autumn 2013). Christine is writing her first poetry manuscript, which illuminates biskaabiyaang, an Anishinaabe process of returning to self. She works in the field of Indigenous Literature and Creative Writing, and is a Ph.D. candidate in Indigenous Studies. Her blog, “Anishinaabeweziwin” can be accessed at firstname.lastname@example.org