The Chat With Gregory Scofield

gregory
TREVOR CORKUM cropped

For our first Chat of 2017, we turn to poetry and consider the themes of witnessing and reconciliation. I’m in conversation with 2016 Writers’ Trust of Canada Latner Poetry Prize winner Gregory Scofield, whose most recent collection, Witness, I Am, explores the lives and stories of some of Canada’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

The Latner jury wrote, in part, “For seven collections of poetry, Gregory Scofield has impressed us with his memorable lyrics and keen eye for the finer details. His forms embrace the musical, the documentary, and the experimental in a vision of risk and generosity ... He has courage to let us in, and the patience to help us understand.”

Gregory Scofield is Red River Métis of Cree, Scottish and European descent whose ancestry can be traced to the fur trade and to the Métis community of Kinesota, Manitoba. He has taught First Nations and Métis Literature and Creative Writing at Brandon University, Emily Carr University of Art + Design, and the Alberta College of Art + Design. He currently holds the position of Assistant Professor in English at Laurentian University where he teaches Creative Writing. Scofield won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 1994 for his debut collection, The Gathering: Stones for the Medicine Wheel. In addition to several volumes of poetry, he is the author of the memoir, Thunder Through My Veins (1999).

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THE CHAT WITH GREGORY SCOFIELD

Trevor Corkum: Your newest collection is called Witness, I Am. What does it mean for you to act or serve as a witness? Why is the act of bearing witness important?

Gregory Scofield: The act of witnessing, for me, is a sacred act. It involves the ceremony of our eyes and ears, the ceremony of connecting to what is in front of you. This act of witnessing can be both painful and magical, but I believe it’s through this ceremony we are led to new understandings within ourselves. We learn to move our minds and bones differently.

The act of bearing witness, as I mentioned, is highly important because it enables us to connect with the things we find incomprehensible and fearful, yet it enables us to connect with the things we find comforting and familiar.

TC: In many of the poems, you explore the lives and stories of Indigenous women who are missing or murdered. Why did you decide to tell these stories?

GS: This particular collection deals with the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women as a means of advocacy, but also as a means of healing for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous readers. I come to the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women from a personal place. In 1998, I lost my Aunty to violence. Her murderer was never brought to justice nor was her homicide investigated appropriately.

in 1998, I lost my Aunty to violence. Her murderer was never brought to justice nor was her homicide investigated appropriately.

Since then I’ve used my voice as a poet and educator to bring awareness to this issue. I also continue to use social media such as Twitter to bring awareness to MMIW by posting the name and photograph of a missing or stolen sister each day.

TC: The poems are visceral, deeply personal. In “Hospital Dream”, for example, you write:

I’m here to collect what’s left of your bones.
But he is also here, the collector
to break what’s left of the good ones.
I cannot make a net to catch you.
I can only swim to witness your unravelling,
a child without clothes on.

There’s a heartbreaking sense of a child’s deep love for his mother, the emotional turmoil of witnessing her pain, the helplessness that he “cannot swim fast enough” to save her. In what ways does writing provide a personal place of healing for you?

GS: Writing and in particular poetry has always provided a space for my healing. In fact, I’ve used writing as a way to connect with the things I mentioned in the first question. The amazing thing about literature and art is that is provides a space for us to explore ourselves more deeply. It allows us to enter into ceremony with our unconsciousness and the darkness we are so often afraid of.

[Art] allows us to enter into ceremony with our unconsciousness and the darkness we are so often afraid of.

TC: The collection has received strong and well-deserved national coverage. You’ve been interviewed by Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter. CBC also released a reading of the poem “She Is Spitting a Mouthful of Stars”—the poem you read when you received the Latner Award for Poetry at this year’s Writer’s Trust Awards—and it has been widely shared. What does this type of recognition mean for you at this point in your career, especially with regards to this collection?

GS: The recognition the new collection has received is extremely humbling and gratifying. I’m so pleased that readers are connecting with the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. I’ve always maintained (and have often said publicly) this is NOT just an Indigenous issue. This is an issue that affects us all. We must all be responsible in finding ways to heal the traumatic effects of colonization and forced assimilation.

Acknowledgement, of course, is the first step in addressing the issue of MMIW. As Indigenous people we must also look within our own communities and the healing work that needs to be done.

TC: The federal government has recently launched a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The inquiry’s mission is guided by three goals: finding the truth, honouring the truth, and giving life to the truth as a path to healing. From your perspective, how do we appropriately honour those who have been lost, and give life to the truth of these losses? What steps need to be taken, collectively and individually, to achieve true reconciliation in Canada?

GS: I’m cautiously optimistic the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls will be productive and life-changing for Indigenous women and girls. My hope, of course, is that the findings will be constructively managed into workable outcomes. In the meantime, there are many artists doing work to honour the lives and stories of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.  

For example, I am on the national committee of Walking With Our Sisters, a travelling memorial exhibit of over 1800 moccasin vamps that honour the lives of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. This memorial provides both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people the opportunity to honour these women in a ceremonial and healing way.

In regard to collective and individual steps needed to achieve true reconciliation in Canada, I strongly believe knowledge is power. We must present a true and accurate history of Indigenous people and our history of colonization, to young people in elementary and post-secondary education. We must also support efforts to help indigenous communities become healthy and prosperous. This includes everything from on reserve infrastructure to clean drinking water. There are still a number of communities in Canada living under boiled water advisories. In 2017, this is unacceptable. We must also support communities in traditional ways of justice and healing.

There are still a number of communities in Canada living under boiled water advisories. In 2017, this is unacceptable.

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She Is Spitting a Mouthful of Stars

(nikâwi’s Song)

She is spitting a mouthful of stars
She is laughing more than the men who beat her
She is ten horses breaking open the day
She is new to her bones
She is holy in the dust
She is spitting a mouthful of stars
She is singing louder than the men who raped her
She is waking beyond the Milky Way
She is new to her breath
She is sacred in this breathing
She is spitting a mouthful of stars
She is holding the light more than those who despised her
She is folding clouds in her movement
She is new to this sound
She is unbroken flesh
She is spitting a mouthful of stars
She is laughing more than those who shamed her
She is ten horses breaking open the day
She is new to these bones
She is holy in their dust

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

January 9, 2017
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