Poetry, Place, and Indigenous Identity

Armand Garnet Ruffo and Liz Howard discuss the magic of finding good poems in unlikely places

subway at subway platform

Liz Howard: As a way of beginning, I want to acknowledge our shared connection of place. We both grew up in the small town of Chapleau, Ontario, a former fur-trading outpost tucked just inside the Arctic watershed. It is a very complicated place: geographically isolated with anglophone, francophone, and First Nations communities and also an often-ignored residential-school past. It always seemed to me a pretty unlikely place to have produced a poet, let alone two. I want to tell the story of how I’m pretty sure I first came across your work, again in such an unlikely place: on the Toronto subway. At the time, I was a psychology student and had been writing poetry in secret for years, and one day on my way to class, I saw a poem in place of what would have been an ad in the subway car I was riding.

The Fallout
Armand Garnet Ruffo

I never asked my auntie what she learned
in Residential School. What comes to mind
is her beading and sewing, the moccasins
she made for us, the precision.
What I don’t recall are any hugs or kisses
like my European relatives lavished on us.
As though the heirs of Columbus has a special
claim to affection for those like us
caught in between.

Even more surprising was the bio beneath it that told me the poem was written by an Armand Garnet Ruffo, a poet of Ojibwe descent originally from Chapleau, Ontario. I was absolutely stunned. I, of course, immediately looked up your work after class and was thrilled to get to finally meet you years later.

I tell this story by way of opening up a conversation around how our poetics are tied to place and the different ways we have used them to explore complicated identity. For example, in this poem that appeared on the TTC, taken from your book At Geronimo’s Grave (2001), you speak directly of family members on both sides of your family, European and First Nations, and reference that your auntie attended residential school. In my own writing, my First Nations heritage always emerged as a troubled, occluded, coded presence very much as it was in life, as I was estranged from that side of my family. Did you always write about family and/or “identity,” “Nativeness,” or “mixedness” in poetry? Is it something that always came through your work, something you sought to explore through the medium, or was it something that was born out of your poetic practice itself? Can you talk about how the medium and subject came about for you and how it has evolved?

Armand Garnet Ruffo: First, I need to say that I’m equally thrilled to meet another poet from Chapleau—an award-winning one at that. I suppose the best way to begin is to point out that we are a generation apart. To put it another way, I could be your father. I say this because growing up in the sixties and coming of age in the seventies, there were still a lot of Indigenous people around who spoke their language and literally lived in the bush. For example, when I was about twelve, I started working for a Cree outfitter who hosted American tourists at the camps he had built on a few lakes near Chapleau. All the other guides who worked for him were older than me, and though some of them likely went to the St. John’s Residential School in Chapleau and experienced trauma (nobody talked about it), to me they seemed secure in their identities. And, since I was at an impressionable age, this experience had a profound effect on me. I also need to point out that my own grandmother spoke Ojibwemowin as did my mother, though not as fluently. My grandmother—Wawatasie—was also our family historian, and the one who told me about our family and Grey Owl in and around Biscotasing, hence my book about him. And, of course, I can’t forget my auntie who made us new moccasins every year. Although I didn’t have an intimate relationship with my white father, what I can say about him is that he began his working life as a bush guide and later got a job on the CPR when he started to raise a family (not with my mother). To give you a sense of the times, he was raised in Mettagama, a village that doesn’t even exist any longer, and started working on steam engines! When I look back on my early years, it is clear to me that the land—the boreal forest, hunting, fishing, and guiding—was all central to my life and shaped who I am today.

As for poetry itself, in my formative years in Chapleau, I didn’t have any Indigenous literary models, as there were precious few Indigenous writers getting published at the time. In fact, the only living poet I knew was Leonard Cohen, because my sister had gone south to study nursing and brought back his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, which eventually led me to his books. Aside from him, my models were singer-songwriters like Johnny Cash, Gordon Lightfoot, and Bob Dylan. When I started writing a little in high school, I naturally gravitated to their work. Then in the seventies, I attended York University, and one weekend, I went to visit my grandmother who was living with an aunt in Toronto. I can’t recall exactly how it happened, but my grandmother and I started to talk about poetry—maybe she asked me about my classes—and she recited some of her poetry to me. Yes, recited! While her poems were very much in the style of Pauline Johnson, a form that I couldn’t appreciate, I was blown away by the content. I still recall one of her poems, which begins with “Lost am I in my Native Land.” Something clicked, and from that moment I had my material: I started to write about my life in the north and explored my Indigenous roots, which led to my first book, Opening in the Sky, the title coming from the English translation of my great-great-grandfather’s name.

As for the specific poem you saw on the Toronto subway, one thing I remember about my grandmother and aunties is how little physical contact there was between us. Certainly they showed their affection in other ways, like making me moccasins, but for whatever reason—sociologists, among others, now trace it to residential school and colonization—they rarely expressed emotion. This was very different from my father’s family. I guess the poem arises then from both experience and observation. In referring to the heirs of Columbus, I’m referencing my European relatives and, of course, the claiming of the land and colonization in general.

As for how my subject matter has “evolved,” I think it’s become more expansive and complicated as I’ve experienced more and have come under various artistic and personal influences. That said, I think the themes have remained much the same. I’m still writing about colonization and its repercussions, identity, relationships, nature, language, et cetera, but it’s how I’m saying these things that continues to evolve. I’m thinking of The Thunderbird Poems, which includes elements of Ojibwe ontology—spirituality, the mythic. When I was in my twenties, Wilfred Peltier, an Odawa “wiseman”—he didn’t use the term elder—told me that you cannot be half of anything. Even if you are mixed blood, uprooted or whatever, you have to be a whole human being, and I suppose that’s what I’ve strived to be both in my writing and in my life. I think one of the things people need to realize is that in Indigenous culture—at least in Ojibwe—it is the women who pass on culture to the children, especially in the early years, and I happened to grow up with some strong Ojibwe women (Anishinaabekwe), meaning that they survived against incredible odds, and so I guess that’s where my writing (mostly) comes from.

Howard: I think it is crucial to point out as you have that we are a generation apart because I feel, or at least I’ve come to know it to be the case in my own experience, that so much can happen in one generation, especially since our work is connected in its drawing upon this tension between a so-called dominant culture and one that is under the threat of erasure or assimilation. Within a generation, so much can be lost. It is so moving for me to hear you speak of growing up with these Indigenous role models: in the outfitter men you worked for and also your own grandmother who spoke the language. It has always been a source of sadness and difficulty for me (but also a part of my own journey of discovering who I am and who my relations are) that I was completely estranged from my father’s side of the family. It is through his mother’s family that I have my most direct Ojibwe ancestry. She spoke the language and was raised in the culture. Her mother and father came from Atikameksheng Anishnawbek (formerly Whitefish Lake First Nation) just outside of Sudbury, Ontario. My father unfortunately suffered badly from substance-abuse issues and was actually a missing person for years.

As an aside, I almost started crying when you said (just as fact of age difference, I know) that you could be my father. I just got back from this whirlwind Maritime tour. I spent the first night in Halifax during an intense nor’easter. My father ended up in Halifax at the end of his life as a bottle picker. He surfaced when his liver started failing and had to reach out to family to get documents for a health card. My aunt eventually reached out to me when he was dying, and I flew out there in January of 2015. I think he held on for me because he only lasted about twenty minutes after I arrived at the hospital. That was the first and last time I ever met him. I was stuck there a week in storms helping my aunt arrange things afterward. It was so strange because technically I was next of kin, so was asked all the questions (what prayers at the funeral, where to cast ashes, et cetera) but had never met the man. His partner eventually gave me his effects, papers and the like, that told his story. He’d tried to get help, get clean. He had pictures of me and family-payment statements he’d kept pristine. He just couldn’t shake drinking, and it killed him at fifty-one.

When I started writing emotionally propulsive poetry as a young person, I found myself addressing my father, my grandmother, my ancestors. Somehow, it was a natural conduit for me. When I moved to the city, I used to study the faces of every man begging on the street to see if I could recognize something of myself in him, to see if he was my father. It wasn’t until years later, through my own research, that I learned about the sacred rite of the shaking tent. How it was used as a vehicle of prophesy or communication at a distance. I realized I had been using poetry in the same way. To try and reach my father, my relatives.

Have you ever had an experience of the sacred in your writing? Or perhaps you can talk about writing through the shamanic works of Norval Morrisseau and not only writing a biography about him but also writing poems in response to his paintings?

Ruffo: Sorry for making you cry. What I find interesting is how much our poetry is linked, whether directly or indirectly, to our Indigenous heritage and our connection to place. In other words, we cannot talk about our work separated from our life experience. I was recently reading about Elizabeth Bishop, and learned that she drank heavily all her life and had been separated from her Nova Scotian grandparents, whom she apparently loved dearly, at an early age. I’m mentioning this because from her poetry you would never know it. And yet, while she was writing her observational kind of poetry, a whole school of confessional style poetry came into prominence. In fact, Robert Lowell, one of the foremost proponents of confessional poetry, was a friend of Bishop’s. There we have it, the impact of the confessional and yet the urge to do something else: to move either behind language or deep into the mechanics of it. This is something that Indigenous poets are not immune to. For example, would I be wrong to say that in Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent you bury—is that the correct word?—much of what you said about your father and your relationship to your mixed heritage within a kind of labyrinthine language fixed in science? In contrast to direct confessional poetry, there’s usually something else going on in your work that deviates from stating things directly. A poem like “Thinktent” comes to mind. There’s just so many references moving tangentially outward from direct familial, Indigenous experience.

While you mention that you were using the poetry in that collection to try to reach your father, I wonder if you were actually writing for your father. It seems to me the kind of poetic incantation you conceptualize is extremely personal in its concern for language and Western epistemology. That those Canadian poets who foreground linguistic and textual process over content, language over experience, received your book so enthusiastically speaks volumes about the tension that exists in contemporary poetry. Like I said, this tension also exists in the work of Indigenous poets, more so now than ever before, but because of our political reality, it’s just not as pervasive. In fact, it seems to me the Indigenous poets concerned about this kind of thing try to combine these disparate strands. The poets working with Indigenous languages come to mind here. I would go so far as to say that the scientific language you choose intentionally complicates direct experience, probably because the experiences you write about are so painful for you and because you find yourself “outside of the shaking tent looking in.” Is that a fair assessment?

As for my biography Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing into Thunderbird, I initially assumed it would be completely prose, but as I got into his life and art, I found that poems started to appear, and I just let them come. A tap had been opened, and the few poems in the biography grew into a book of their own, The Thunderbird Poems. I realized in the process that poetry can handle things that prose can’t, or at least, poetry can do it much more succinctly. It was then that I started to think of the form of the poetry I was writing, and I knew that I wanted it to engage with a particular kind of experience; it had to be grounded in the world of the Anishinaabek Manidoog or Manitous.

I was concerned about employing the world of shamanism in the work because that was Norval’s world, and he always said that his paintings came directly out of it. (Norval’s grandfather Potan Nanakonagos was a shaman and his greatest influence.) I was also leaning toward direct confession because Norval himself had told me “not to leave anything out.” Furthermore, because Norval believed his art had the power to guide Indigenous people back to our traditions, I wanted Indigenous people to be the first audience, above all, to identify with the work. So while the tension between observation and confession is there, the majority of the poems are grounded in narrative, which serves to anchor them in a particular Anishinaabek experience and meaning.

All this makes me wonder about the responsibility and the role of poets, Indigenous poets in particular. Can we as literary artists do our own thing above all else, or are we compelled by our histories and reality as colonized peoples? To put this another way, are we writing for the children who were beaten and starved to death in the residential schools? I’m thinking here of the tiny graves hidden in the bush near the old St. John’s Residential School in Chapleau. Is writing as artists with no responsibility but to ourselves and our art a luxury we can afford?

Howard: Your response is sending me off into so many possible nodes that I want to explore and that I feel are all equally necessary, valid, and interesting, and that is exactly the point, really, of the concatenating, transgressive, paradoxical excess you speak of in my work. What can come off as a burying, concealment, occlusion is really an attempt to render on the page what is happening in my mind. My ultimate confession, as you have got so right, is a disaster of language as a result of trauma. There is the fear of revealing too much. There is the fear of not getting it right. There is the fear of it not really being my right to speak, even if it is my own experience.

The poems in Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent were for the most part composed in 2010–2014, and during that time, what I knew of my Indigenous heritage was conveyed to me by my mother, who I love and respect dearly but who has suffered from mental-health issues and has therefore been very much the unreliable narrator of my life. Growing up as I did (experiencing abuse as a young adult while writing and also working through depression, anxiety, PTSD, as well as substance issues), there was very much for me an issue of not trusting my own mind, my own narrative, and my own stories enough to tell them “straight.” When I was writing my book, the chaos I was feeling in my mind, my soul, and my emotions came through in the language I was using. Just as the land is contaminated by industry, so too, in a way, is my own “story” “contaminated” by Western ideology, right? All these complications are pulled through the book. If you read and reread the book, you will see the larger themes start to come into relief, stories pop out. I think my future work will be largely more “accessible” in style. But I loved experimenting in this way. It felt true to me. To how I was feeling at the time. There was, as you said, a sense of being outside the tent. But I also identified with the figure of Mikanaak (or Mikkinnuk as you write it in The Thunderbird Poems), the turtle spirit in the tent. The one who receives Manidoog knowledge in their disparate languages and translates them into Anishinaabemowin for the conjuror of the tent rite, as I came to understand it in my research. Sometimes one doesn’t always get the translation right, you know what I mean?

When I was allowing myself to attune to the paradoxical linguistic crosscurrents in my mind I caught and translated onto the page what I found there. Sometimes, it was a story from my childhood I felt brave enough to share. Sometimes, it was a bit of the Ojibway language I taught myself, a reference to a Nanabush story or a memory of being blessed by an elder in Chapleau. Other times, it was an anatomical term or philosophical theory I learned in university, big words I learned in books, stories I heard of the things people did to hurt each other or to help each other, things that made me laugh. All of it toward a kind of prophesy, a question I asked myself: Am I worth it to continue? Are my people out there? Am I alone in this?

Of course, everything was different when I wrote the elegy for my father. That was after I met him for the first and last time. That was the answer to the big question. Seeing my father, there was no question what my ancestry was, although I know it’s not the same as having a community that recognizes you. But I met my aunty too, and she told me the family story. A veil was lifted. In grief, there is just the force of the immediate over and over and over. And I think that’s what comes through in my poem. It’s been the most impactful thing I’ve written. It’s the thing that scared me the most to share, because it’s so close to me. So I’ve become more open to writing in this way. It still scares me. I truly think there’s room for both ways, the chaos and the personal. That’s what I identify with.

And so, as you have said in writing about Norval and his life and work and referencing in particular his painting “Ancestors Performing the Ritual of the Shaking Tent, c. 1958-61” and his shaman grandfather, you must know the story. The story I’m thinking of is the one he’s told of witnessing the shaking tent in a neighbour’s house because it was outlawed at the time. Practitioners were actually imprisoned if caught. So it was being done in a house, and he recounts how he couldn’t believe it. When I read Norval’s account, I had such a feeling in my chest. This is the strange horror of assimilation that I know. What is a room? A cell? A containment? A collection of lines in poetry is called a stanza. Stanza means room in Italian. Poetry is often about compression. What of this moment of secreting away an oracular practice? My ancestors did this too in the open. I never will. What do I accomplish in my little rooms of chaos? As you have asked, What is the larger responsibility?

Ruffo: What immediately comes to my mind from your response is a history of silence and lies that is the foundation upon which this country is built—meaning a history of racism, violence, and displacement—and this is the foundation upon which Canadians have built their homes (and families). Generations of Indigenous people, including members of both our families, have lived and died tragically, and for us, it’s the norm! On the literary front, these experiences are finally being documented. As I said earlier, when I started writing, I was hard pressed to find a role model. Today, any aspiring Indigenous writer only has to walk into a library or bookstore and there’s a shelf of Indigenous writers. That’s nothing less than amazing. I think a large part of it has to do with what you are getting at. In the past, we tended to conceal and sublimate our Indigenous identities just as the colonizer wanted and expected us to do. I remember my mother telling me that when she was young she and a friend went to Toronto and worked as waitresses in a restaurant. My mother passed herself off as Spanish, and her girlfriend passed herself off as Asian. Had they said they were “Indian,” they wouldn’t have gotten the jobs. At the time my mother told me this, I was fairly young and I didn’t realize the pain that must have surfaced for her in telling me. That’s what we went through, a whole people! Most Canadians don’t want to know this stuff. Reconciliation to them is something out there, something intangible that really has nothing to do with them. “It happened before I was born.” We hear that a lot. But who benefited? So, yes, something positive is currently happening in the country, and I’m happy to be alive to witness it.

To complicate matters, is the notion of “responsibility” leading to a circumscription of what Indigenous poetry, and Indigenous literature in general, is supposed to be? There currently seems to be a trend to emphasize the aforementioned traumas I was talking about with little consideration given to the positive aspects of having Indigenous heritage. And what about aesthetics? It is as though Indigenous people never had an interest in such questions, when one only has to turn to our traditional storytelling strategies or our sense of design, our totems or basketry, to see the truth. Take the current field of Indigenous literary studies; it seems to be almost solely focused on a literature of trauma and resistance. I guess what I’m getting at: Is our literature at risk of becoming a literature of issues?

While you refer to your book Infinite Citizen as “a disaster of language” with all kinds of “complications…pulled through the book,” it nevertheless employs language in inventive ways to explore another potential aesthetic for Indigenous poets. In this way, one could consider your text as providing an alternative to this circumscription, this pigeonholing. I’m also thinking here of other young Indigenous writers who are pushing the aesthetic button while dealing with their own issues—yikes, there’s that word again.

Howard: I think you’re exactly right that there is this all-too-steady gaze on the traumatic Indigenous experience. I also often wonder about what might be called Indigenous “futurisms,” or futures or possibilities, aesthetic potentials as you have said. I think I have made a way toward that in my work. At least that was the intention, the necessity. The fracturing, the hardship, the wound, whether within oneself and/or within one’s lineage as an Indigenous person is a fact. The question is, What to do? Ultimately, for myself as a writer, I discovered the figure of the infinite citizen of the shaking tent. Perhaps I am a kind of slippery, in-between, trickster spirit. I suppose this is the figure of myself as a writer that could compose in so many formally inventive and generative ways, pulling in neuroscience, the bush, Western philosophy, Nanabozho, dreams, calling down the sky, Toronto streets, ecological concerns, and so on and compressing them all together into my account, my gift, my book. The trauma, the silence, the absence is there too. But I think it is an ultimately joyful text. I see your work on Norval as being along the same lines. You don’t leave him with us as either a tragic or revelatory figure. He’s deeply human. I see the possibilities for Indigenous work as being as open and variegated as each of our stories.

Ruffo: I agree wholeheartedly. Futurisms, healing, regeneration: that’s where we have to go with our writing and, above all, our lives. As it stands, the more tragically we present ourselves, the more the mainstream public laps it up when indeed we should be focusing on alternatives. Granta recently published a poem of mine called “The Reckoning” in their Canada issue, and although it may appear at first reading to be tragic, what I’m saying is that the health of the planet and the very survival of humankind is contingent on Western society realizing that in attempting to destroy Indigenous cultures, they have come a breath away from destroying themselves and the planet. Case in point: microplastics have now infected the whole ecosystem. Their society is simply unsustainable. I suppose many people realize this, and that’s why Western culture is generally so nihilistic. And, yes, Norval Morrisseau for all his trauma and addictions was a remarkable visionary who recognized this and set out to do something about it through his art. He always said that his paintings were icons meant to heal the world, and that’s where the next generation, your generation, needs to go: less pain, more gain. As a science major, you’re probably familiar with the word biophilia. It means a love of life and the living world—an affinity—though I prefer to think of it as kinship between humans and other life forms; it’s that kind of mindset that will save this planet! Indigenous poets lead the way! I’ll leave it at that.

Excerpted from What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation, edited by Rob Taylor. Copyright © 2018. Reprinted by permission of Nightwood Editions.

Liz Howard
Liz Howard’s Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent won the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize. She is of mixed European and Anishinaabe descent. Born and raised on Treaty 9 territory in northern Ontario, she is currently the 2018/19 Canadian writer-in-residence at the University of Calgary.