The Chat With Janet Rogers

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I met Janet Rogers earlier this year as part of a dialogue at Pearson College in Victoria called "Canada 150: An Indigenous Perspective." This week, I’m thrilled to be in conversation with Janet about her latest collection, Totem Poles & Railroads (Arbeiter Ring Publishing).

Of the collection, Jordan Abel says, “Janet Rogers’ latest book Totem Poles & Railroads doesn’t pull any punches. All of the stinging and difficult realities of colonialism are confronted head-on and with ferocity. Rogers is here to disrupt these white landscapes. Rogers is here to call out all of the bullshit both past and present. Totem Poles & Railroads is burning to be read.”

Janet is a Mohawk/Tuscarora writer from Six Nations. She was born in Vancouver, lived in Stoney Creek, Hamilton, and Toronto, and has been living as guest on the traditional lands of the Coast Salish people (Victoria) since 1994. Janet works in the genres of poetry, spoken word performance poetry, video poetry and recorded poetry with music. Janet is also a radio broadcaster, documentary producer, media and sound artist. She was the City of Victoria Poet Laureate from 2012 to 2015.

"Totem Poles & Railroads is burning to be read."—Jordan Abel

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THE CHAT WITH JANET ROGERS

totempoles

Trevor Corkum: Totem Poles & Railroads is your fifth collection of poetry. After the publication of Peace in Duress (2014), you told CBC Radio that might be your last print collection. What changed?

Janet Rogers: Well I’m not sure what happened can be described as “changed” so much as something took over. I subscribe to the belief that when we openly make plans, Creator gets a good laugh. So making the pious statement about not working in print any more was me, setting myself up. But I am so grateful. The majority of poems in this collection were written while at two residencies; the UNBC Writer in Residence term in Prince George BC winter 2015/2016 and the OCAD Visiting Artist Residency February 2016. I guess you could say I was very inspired by having the concentrated time to write. And voila! A new collection emerged.  

TC: The collection explores the several centuries old relationship between Indigenous nations and settler Canadians. In one interview you say that “an artist has the responsibility to respond to things that are happening currently because these pieces of writing—creative or otherwise—then become records of the time that we're all living in.” What was the process of putting together the work in this collection? Did you envision a collection, as you worked on the individual pieces?

JR: No, I had no preconceived vision of this collection, no idea at all that I would produce another book. I was listening, a lot of the time, as well as writing, but listening to the TRC’s Final Report coming out, to the 94 Calls to Action being presented, and I always have my ear to what’s happening back on my home territories on Six Nations, so there was an abundance of topical material I felt compelled to respond to. And again, just having that concentrated time helped the new poems to take on a different shape and tone from my previous collections. To me, there is maturation visible in the writing and in the collection itself.

TC: Many of the poems are extremely visceral, rooted in the body and often speaking powerfully about the body and the need to tune into its wisdom. I’m thinking of “Where Are Your Guts?” in which you write, in part, that “disbelief lives on the skin.” You’re also a noted performance poet and spoken word artist. Can you talk more about the relationship between the body and creativity in your work?

JR: Body is territory. It is personal territory from which we negotiate many things. If we tune into our body’s needs, it teaches us how to live authentically, without compromise. When I am asked about where my inspiration comes from, I touch my stomach and I say it begins there, in my guts. It’s a very real energy and feeling. When I create poems, derived from that inspiration, I also call that work, territory. The poetry is literary territory that helps support me, as a foundation of who I am. And I believe, if done successfully, other’s will find support there too; support with identity, support with validation of experience and inspiration for themselves, which to me is the greatest measure of success.   

When I am asked about where my inspiration comes from, I touch my stomach and I say it begins there, in my guts.

TC: You served as the City of Victoria’s Poet Laureate from 2012 to 2014, and have been active in a number of residencies since then. In what ways do you consider yourself a mentor or model? What was the most rewarding aspect of serving as Poet Laureate?

JR: It was very rewarding to serve at the City’s Poet Laureate. I had a great time and a great relationship with the people I worked with at the City. I’m not sure it is my place to call myself a mentor. That may come from other’s who feel I may have something to offer their creative process in their journey. I was genuinely honoured to receive many invitations into events and celebrations that I wouldn’t ordinarily be invited to or think to attend. And it was even more enjoyable to be asked to provide new poetry for some of those events. I found that very inspiring. As the city’s Poet Laureate I was asked to do a presentation for the city’s book prizes, once a year, for the three years of my term. It is a grand affair attended by many of the city’s literary elites. I was one of a very few people of colour at those events, held in a club that didn’t allow women through their doors until the 1960s. So to be in “that place” and share my poems with “that crowd” felt radical and exciting.

I was one of a very few people of colour at those events, held in a club that didn’t allow women through their doors until the 1960s. So to be in “that place” and share my poems with “that crowd” felt radical and exciting.

TC: There’s been a lot of debate in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities about the appropriateness of "celebrating’"Canada 150. What’s your take?

JR: You know my take. I read my response to Chief Dan George’s Lament for Confederation at the Pearson College event titled “Confederation 150.” My piece takes the Chief’s criticism of the country’s celebration from an Indigenous perspective, even further. And those criticisms need to go further because in this day and age, with all the education around the country’s true history, the relationship between the original inhabitants and settler-nations does not seem to have improved all that much. Case in point—the CanLit/TWUC Write Magazine debacle. The insults run deep and they keep coming. I’m not sure people know what to think or how to respond to both Canada 150 and the Year of Reconciliation happening at the same time. I know I don’t. I don’t feel I need to actively participate in either of those markers. It’s not my party and it’s not my responsibility to reconcile with this country. I’ve done nothing to reconcile for.  

I’m not sure people know what to think or how to respond to both Canada 150 and the Year of Reconciliation happening at the same time. I know I don’t. I don’t feel I need to actively participate in either of those markers. It’s not my party and it’s not my responsibility to reconcile with this country. I’ve done nothing to reconcile for.

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EXCERPT

Confederation 150

Ahhhh canada
standing defiantly behind a line
that doesn’t quite protect or define
as it was wished
and won by war
these SpOILs are yours
but the landmass remains in tact
so what can you claim?
with flimsy parchment that proclaims
ownership citizenship
a severely superficial-ness
taking and overtaking
the dismissing and denying
buried under layers
the ice is petrifying

offering hard rock shields
labeled canadian
a nationalistic resource
where nothing cultivates
and nothing to trade
did you think?
the steel staples
would hold it together
did you remember?
to ask permissions
or make paper consultations
using the Queens English
Ahhhh canada
do not slip me the tongue
and call it a French Kiss
how do two languages survive 65 or more?
an agenda of insults with your
ideas of colonial distinction  
pretty little tricks in lyrics
written in anthems
sung from the immigrant’s hearts
your crests in cloth tells all
as bookended red nations
stand divided either side
of a dying maple leaf
thinly penciled treaty
centered-symbol almost stable
until autumn’s justice sucks the truth from it
and we begin again

offerings in song
to join in false chorus
another choice to remain forgetful
but your soldiers stay true
and their patriot hearts
continue to glow with pride
while we the originals write our own journals
after disrupted chapters leaving my people to
Fightfleeordie
the strength of our identity
quite independent of yours
was formed before you were born
and doesn’t include hops and hockey
who are you exactly?
listening to the mother Corp
with terrestrial signals constantly talking
mining stories and rewriting ours
your race hate-filled comments
take this country’s temperature and count its votes
So listen close
 
there is no home if there is no native land
sing about it all you want
the harmonies will always
be off key to me
interesting times indeed
and the Chief reciting
his lament 50 years previous
said it all from the west
Ahhhh canada
how many of ME
had to die so you can be you
reconcile is not something I read about
It’s something you do

Reprinted with permission of the author.

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VIDEO: Janet Rogers reading “Totem Poles an Railroads.

 
June 16, 2017
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