The Chat with Shannon Webb-Campbell

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Today on The Chat, we’re in conversation with poet Shannon Webb-Campbell. Webb-Campbell recently released her latest collection, I am a Body of Land (Book*hug).

Praising the collection, author Carole Rose Daniels says, “Shannon Webb-Campbell’s work forces readers out of polite conversation and into a realm where despair and hard truths are being told, being heard and finding the emotional strength to learn from it, find our way out and embrace our beauty as Indigenous women.”

Shannon Webb-Campbell is a mixed-Indigenous (Mi’kmaq) settler poet, writer, and critic currently based in Montreal. Her first book, Still No Word (2015) was the inaugural recipient of Egale Canada’s Out In Print Award. She was Canadian Women in the Literary Arts Critic-in-Residence in 2014, and sits on Canadian Women in the Literary Arts board of directors. Her work has appeared in many anthologies, journals and publications across Canada including The Globe and Mail, Geist Magazine, The Malahat Review, Canadian Literature, Room, and Quill and Quire.

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THE CHAT WITH SHANNON WEBB-CAMPBELL

Trevor Corkum: I am a Body of Land is described as “an attempt to explore a relationship to poetic responsibility and accountability, and to frame poetry as a form of re-visioning.” In what ways does poetry allow us to re-vision and explore accountability?

Shannon Webb-Campbell: I believe the work of a poet is to maintain integrity, respect, and aim for clarity. It’s important to understand the language you are writing in, and why. Poetry is powerful, and so returning to a poem is equally as significant, as writers of all sorts make errors. It’s how we handle our revisions, and remain accountable to the poetics. Poetry is constantly evolving. Poetry isn’t a reckoning—it's deeper, more soulful, and certainly complex.

I Am a Body of Land is a completely different and reworked text. There are very few poems carried over from the original publication, and all of the problematic poems have been pulled from the book. Each of the families have received letters of apology from me, my publishers and editor Julie Joosten, and this is documented in the afterword of the book.

TC: You worked on this collection in part with Lee Maracle, a highly regarded writer, teacher, and scholar. What was that process like for you, personally and professionally? What did you learn from Lee?

SWC: Anyone who has read, studied, or had the privilege of sharing space with Lee Maracle knows she is a tour de force.

Lee and I had several phone call and email exchanges before meeting on her back porch in Toronto one Saturday afternoon. She asked me what were some of the concerns brought to me about the work—who was I to write this work? What was my connection to the families or issues of MMIWG? Why did I write this in the first place? Why didn’t I think I should ask permission?

Then Lee asked about my relationship to my Indigenous background, and questioned if the letters were necessary to the work.  We went through the entire text poem by poem, line by line, and removed all of the pan-Indigenous poetics and problematic poems.

TC: Your previous collection, Who Took My Sister? was pulled from distribution after a controversy surrounding some of the poems. Where are you now with that decision?

SWC: In my view there was no other option than pulling the book from distribution. The work was incomplete. The decision to return to the text comes from attempting to right a wrong. To take this as a teaching moment, not only for me and my publishers, but also for other writers. And most importantly, in the larger context of doing no more harm, I don’t want the families to go through this painful process again.

TC: The poems in I am a Body of Land speak directly to the heart of issues of identity, loss, and colonization. Can you speak more to where you see this particular collection in relation to your overall body of work?

SWC: I Am a Body of Land is a new work of poetry that speaks to my relationship to a fragmented settler-Indigenous identity, questions around belonging and un-belonging. In a way, it’s a book that answers, or reflects some of the questions in my first collection, Still No Word.

Currently, I am finishing a short story collection, and working towards a novel exploring further these issues and questions of identity, loss and colonization.

TC: There are so many powerful poems in the collection. One of my favourites is the opening poem, “After the Upheaval”, in which the speaker states:

I’m a translation of a translation
somewhere on the chopping block
of cutting and absence I cower
I trace tree lines

There’s a deep sense of absence and loss here, themes you explore throughout the collection. There’s a quest to retrieve history; for authenticity. What’s lost, and what’s gained for us, as artists (and humans) in exploring such impossible questions?  

SWC: Loss is inherent to the human experience. The quest to find your way home is a universal one. Perhaps as artists we circle the impossible, and grapple with the unknowable to fill the void. To create a pathway through the depths of loss and absence. To try and understand why we are here, who we belong to, and where we may land.

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After the Upheaval

I’ve landed here
my voice damp with shame
my insides burn
I wait for someone to ask me to leave

I’m a translation of a translation
somewhere on the chopping block
of cutting and absence I cower
I trace tree lines

I am looking for a root
a stem to grow a sense of who I am
metabolize where I come from
and process who I belong to

I’m afraid of all that came before

“After the Upheaval” appears in I am a Body of Land. It was reprinted with permission from Book*hug and the author.

March 26, 2019
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