Laurie D Graham
Laurie D Graham was the winner of the 2014 Thomas Morton Memorial Prize for Poetry, judged by Margaret Atwood. Her winning poem, “Battleford Gravesite” was published in The Puritan Issue 27. Atwood described Laurie D Graham’s poem as, “A tone-perfect elegiac meditation on the impossibility of engaging with painful history and the necessity of doing so.”
The craziest thing about “Battleford Gravesite” winning the Thomas Morton Prize is knowing Margaret Atwood had not just read the poem, but had penned a few words in response to it. That’s one thing prizes do for you as a writer: they lend outside legitimacy to this work you do alone, at your desk, for no wage, in a society where wage is everything and vocation nearly incomprehensible. People who don’t know about the world of poetry (and even people who do) hear the words “prize” and “Margaret Atwood,” and it now makes a little more sense that I choose to hang out at my desk and not draw wages for this many hours (years!) at a stretch, arranging words on a page.
Legitimacy is a hard thing for a poet to come by. There are a few markers: a book, a prize, an interview, a photo in the paper. Mostly, it’s up to you to bear witness to your own legitimacy: your complicated desk-related back problems, your tendency towards hermitism, the embarrassing things you wear to the corner store while not fully seeing out your eyeballs, your inability to read for pure escape or enjoyment anymore (goddammit), or, finally, your finished poem appearing in a journal that is itself trying not to panic or grieve too hard or too daily about its own legitimacy. Of course, the more significant mark of validation is the plain fact of the writer’s project, AKA the things that move her to sit at that back-destroying desk, the things that cause her at times not to see out her eyeballs as she’s walking to the store. Then there’s the indisputable proof of the poems adding up, the CV lengthening. This is all evidence. It accrues. It explains you.
“A tone-perfect elegiac meditation on the impossibility of engaging with painful history and the necessity of doing so,” Atwood wrote, for Pete’s sake. That second, hyphenated word is the one that blows a bit of air up the ego, so I try to ignore it. I take more relief from all the other words in that sentence. She saw what I was trying to do. Maybe it worked. Phew.
“Battleford Gravesite” is about visiting the site, in what is now the town of Battleford, Saskatchewan, where eight Cree men, including Big Bear’s war chief Wandering Spirit, were buried 130 years ago. All eight were convicted of murder. Six of the eight were hanged in retaliation for the killings of nine non-indigenous people at the long-defunct settlement of Frog Lake, in what is now east-central Alberta. The dispute that led to the killings involved requests for food being denied. This happened directly after the buffalo were commercially hunted off the prairie. It was the largest mass hanging in the country’s history.
The trial was profoundly unjust. It was more a show of how the system reacts when you kill white men, especially those in positions of apparent authority over the Cree men and their communities. They couldn’t understand their trials, which took place in English. Officials did very little work to even see that they had the right people in custody. So the poem is about standing at that grave, being in that spot with the fort-turned-tourist-attraction where they were hanged just up the valley, acknowledging the story, acknowledging what’s there or not there.
In her piece in the Town Crier, Julienne Isaacs argued against “a politically utilitarian view of literature.” She brings up Joseph Boyden’s novel The Orenda, Poems from Guantanamo Bay, and “Battleford Gravesite” as part of her argument, which goes like this:
If we concede that all works of art are inherently political because they engage with human life, can we also concede that artists have no specific duty to promote political ideals? If the artist’s primary duty is to their work—to observing and reflecting the world in its complexity, and avoiding prescriptive answers—that work will necessarily benefit the larger community.
Paradoxically, it is often a feeling of urgent political duty that spurs me to write. Poetry helps me lay out or articulate a situation that’s too complex or entrenched for me to handle with prose or persuasive narrative. In other words, being overt won’t work. In other other words, as Isaacs describes it, “The poem does draw the reader’s eye toward historical realities, but it doesn’t exert any particular demands on the reader beyond observation.” Ideally, you’ll observe those “realities” within the poem and intuit the point of their being written. Any “demands” you feel as a result of reading will spring not wholly from the poem, but from the act of processing all these images, sounds, and sensory whatnots arranged on the page.
Observation is an important, difficult task, far from neutral or benign. To observe implies an amount of care, a will to remember, an examination, and a coming into consciousness. It carries with it a burden or duty that we’re often encouraged to slough off or ignore. We’re so often told that to watch or listen is a passive experience, but for a poem to ask for a reader’s attention is to ask for his critical self, his empathetic self, his most aware self, and his political self. My parents grew up not far from active residential schools, and neither of them recalls anyone talking about what happened there. Through that resounding silence, that absence, they were taught to ignore, to not look, to keep out of it. In the face of omissions of this magnitude, observing and listening is a route to righting catastrophic wrongs.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which will release its full, two-million-word report later this year, appointed numerous honorary witnesses for each of its national events. The TRC website defines witnesses as “keepers of history when an event of historic significance occurs.” This provides what’s said and done with legitimacy and validation, and “could not take place without honoured and respected guests to witness it.” Shelagh Rogers, honorary witness for the National Event in Inuvik in 2011, described the role this way:
My mission is to listen, learn and then transmit, and create understanding. As a Witness, you keep the memory and you take the story further down the road and deliver it to more people … It is bigger than just telling the story—I want to see policy change, curriculum change, to see concrete fixes in civil society …
Political duty resides with the witness, with the reader, and rightfully so. Poems can’t easily articulate theses or make pronouncements but they’re really good at showing you things. Margaret Atwood understood how necessary it was for me to go to that gravesite to learn the names of the men buried there and how they came to be buried there. The poem was what I had to do. It was my act of transmitting after learning the stories. Now, hopefully, a few more people know the story, too.
Laurie D Graham is a Prairie type living in London, Ontario. Her poem “Battleford Gravesite” won last year’s Thomas Morton Prize. Next spring, McClelland & Stewart will publish her second book of poetry.