Friday, March 28, 2008

Poetry Friday/ Reader's Diary #339- Jeannette C. Armstrong and Lally Grauer (Editors): Native Poetry In Canada

The last time I was in Yellowknife I went to the Book Cellar which claims to be Canada's most northern independent book store. It's a small place, but it was packed-- not just with books, but with customers as well. Nice to see any independent book store doing so well.

It was here that I picked up the anthology Native Poetry in Canada, editted by Jeannette C. Armstrong and Lally Grauer.

This is a very well put together project. At 360 pages, complete with poet profiles, introductions from both editors, and the promise of both award winning recognized poets, alongside those that are probably under appreciated, from 1960 to the present, it was a great primer for those of us without much exposure, and a great collection for those who were already familiar with these poets.

Written in English, most of the poets acknowledge the influence their native languages had on their poetry. Likewise their cultures in general. Initially I was nervous that I would not "get it." I worried that if I didn't appreciate a particular poem, perhaps the problem lay not with the poem but with my ignorance. But then I thought about it, don't we do this whenever we read? When I read Pablo Neruda, is there something lost to me in translation? When I read Adrienne Rich, am I missing the connotations of being a female? When I read Enos Watts, does the fact that we had different parents matter? The answer to all of these is yes. Every reader brings their own background into the poem. But poets are bridge-builders and readers must decide whether or not to cross. Fortunately, I was able to span the divide in most of those found in Native Poetry in Canada.

Perhaps what I enjoyed most about the collection was the tension. Trying to reconcile the past with the present, natives with whites, urban living with rural traditions, cultural identities with stereotypes, and so forth didn't just provide fodder for individual poems, but allowed for a fascinating discourse between poems and between poets as well. Occasionally when poets like Beth Brant wrote, "Our work is considered 'too political' and we do not stay in our place-- the place that white North America deems acceptable" I worried that there'd be too much presumption. Would Brant presume the right speak on behalf of other poets? Of other Native people(s)? Would there be too much generalization? Fortunately, I didn't find a lot of that. And while many poems are indeed political and against racism, particularly from the white population, that did not preoccupy the book. In fact, just as many poems (including Brant's) were about sexual identity, domestic life, nature and more. As many poems were funny as were angry as were sad. In short, it was an anthology diverse as the poets themselves. The political poems were necessary, as were the rest. Armstrong and Grauer did a fantastic job balancing themes.

Speaking of Armstrong, her poems were perhaps my favourite in the collection. She is quoted as saying "I want to [...] work with poems that deconstruct linearity, the page." I can't tell you how exciting a concept that was to me. My wheels have been turning ever since. To give you an example as to what she's referring, take this section from her poem entitled "Green":

That's but one way she experimented with the line, for other examples you'll just have to pick up a copy of the book.

The only problem I had was the lack of Inuit poets. The Inuit make up such a large part of the native population in Canada, yet there wasn't a single representative poem to be found in the anthology. Why is this? Perhaps Armstrong and Grauer aren't to be judged too harshly. The last poet to be highlighted in the book was Randy Lundy who informs us that his poetry has appeared in literary periodicals "from coast to coast-- but not Nunavut, which seems to have a dearth of such publications." Sadly, this is true. A while ago I blogged about Eskimo Poems, a collection of Inuit poetry collected by Knud Rasmussen in the early 20th century and translated into English by Tom Lowenstein. Obviously such poems wouldn't fit under a contemporary anthology, but I certainly hope that wasn't the end.

The Soundtrack:
1. Dance Hall Blues- Digging Roots
2. Muskrat Blues- Big Joe Green
3. She's Still The Same Girl- Weaselhead
4. Common Goal- Leela Gilday
5. Coyote Dance- Robbie Robertson & The Red Road Ensemble

Native Poetry in Canada was published by Broadview Press, 2001.


Anonymous said...

Every reader brings their own background into the poem. But poets are bridge-builders and readers must decide whether or not to cross.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

It sounds like this anthology generally had a good mixture of representation.

Susan said...

Could you list some of the poets included? I have read Jeanette Armstrong before, she is an amazing writer,and I'd like to know if the anthology is a mix of published poets as well as newer ones. Of course, I could go look at the book, but I thought a list of some of the writers would help. Thanks for reviewing it - and I think what is most difficult to face in native writings is that we are the same and we are different, at the same time. It's hard to face the prejudice coming at us from the other side. I know this well, since my brother is adopted - he is Ojibway, so I have been involved in native culture for some time now. thanks very much for bringing this book to everyone's attention!

John Mutford said...

Kelly: ?

Barbara: Of course, someone more familiar with native poets might look at this and say, "What about so-and-so? Why wasn't she included?" But to me, it felt like a good representation at least.

Susan: You're right, I should have mentioned more of the poets included. Other than Armstrong and Brant whom I mentioned above, the book includes poetry by Chief Dan George, Rita Joe, Peter Blue Cloud/ Arionwenrate, Duke Redbird, Marie Annharte Baker, Sarain Stump, Wayne Keon, Gordon Williams, Beth Cuthland, Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, Emma LaRocque, Rasunah Marsden, Skyros Bruce/ Mahara Allbrett, Lee Maracle, George Kenny, Duncan Mercredi, Daniel David Moses, Joan Crate, Louise Halfe, Marilyn Dumont, Armand Garnet Ruffo, Joanne Arnott, Connie Fife, Joseph Dandurand, Kateri Akiwenzi-Damm, Gregory Scofield, and Randy Lundy.

Anonymous said...

This book sounds really interesting. That poem you quoted left me flailing for a bit but I think I found my footing eventually.

Anonymous said...

Sorry - I meant to say how very awesome those lines were. I quoted them on my blog on Sunday, actually.