It rankles John K. Samson when people call him a Canadian writer
The defiantly Winnipeg-based poet and songwriter John K. Samson is known best for his work as singer for The Weakerthans. He also serves as the managing editor for Arbeiter Ring Press.
Adam Klassen Bartel: In listening to your music I noticed, especially in your last album, Provincial, you tend to name specific places. Driving down Portage Avenue, standing on Memorial Boulevard. Is this conscious, or does it creep in around the edges?
John K Samson: I think in the case of Provincial, my last record, it was a very conscious decision. I had the idea before I started the project of this plan: I would make a record and if someone had two or three days I would be able to take them to the actual location of each song. I felt like that would be interesting for me, because it sounded like a fun thing to do. To anchor my ideas and my kind of obsession with place in a very specific way. So yeah, that was my plan. I chose three roads in Winnipeg plus Highway 1, which I think of as this band going right across the continent, and tried to write something about each place that would be anchored there. It was the most obvious, and I think of it as the culmination of a long obsession with place.
Adam Klassen Bartel: This might be an obvious question, but did you go to these places? Did you drive these roads a lot? Did you put yourself literally in those places?
John K Samson: I did. I actually, for the first time, just did “research.” I mean, that’s in quotation marks, because mostly it was just driving around and walking around. The songs are set in Riverton, MB, and Ninette, MB, and Winnipeg and on Highway 1. I spent a lot of time driving out to those places. I do find the act of travel, movement, whether it is walking or driving, to be important to my creative process. Walking is especially important. That’s where I get most of my work done.
Adam Klassen Bartel: Which came first? Walking and then creating or wanting to create and then walking?
John K Samson: It’s hard for me to say. There’s something rhythmic, obviously, about walking that really lends itself to writing songs. I think a lot of songwriters, and writers in general, feel the same way.
Adam Klassen Bartel: Absolutely, I walk all the time.
John K Samson: Really? I’m a pacer. My wife, Christine Fellows, she can tell when I’m getting work done when she can hear me. I pace the top floor of my house in a probably pretty irritating stomp. That’s probably where it begins, the impulse for me to create is that ambulatory movement, somehow.
Adam Klassen Bartel: Some of the songs take place in Winnipeg, some in small towns, some in the middle of the country. Do you consider yourself urban? Do you consider yourself rural? Are those labels even helpful at all?
John K Samson: I consider myself a regional writer. I’ve come to kind of take pride in that, in what is often been used as an insult. I’ve found that the writing that thrills me the most is writing that is located somewhere. It doesn’t matter where that is. I do feel that that is the case for me.
Adam Klassen Bartel: Have you noticed a difference in regionalism with the information technologies we have today?
John K Samson: Yes
Adam Klassen Bartel: One of the ideas we’re running with this series is that now people have access to all sorts of different kinds of work, you’re not just stuck in one place.
John K Samson: Yeah, I do feel that like there’s a certain grain and texture of regional work that might be diminished due to the internet. I hear it the most in music. I feel like growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, if I heard a band I could get a sense of where they were from. Especially because I grew up here, Winnipeg bands I could feel—I could hear something and go, that sounds to me that’s a Winnipeg band. And I think there are wonderful bands here, of course, everyday, but I feel that perhaps the regional character is diminished.
Adam Klassen Bartel: How would you describe a Winnipeg regional sound? Is there a way to describe it?
John K Samson: No, not really. It’s the sound of people making noise for each other in their basements. I feel like it wasn’t a purposeful act. It was because the main influences of those people, when I was growing up, were other people making noise in their basement and records that we would receive from afar. So the isolated aspect of Winnipeg was, I think, a more profound influence when I was growing up than perhaps for kids today picking up instruments. That’s not to say that it’s better or worse. I just feel like it’s different.
Adam Klassen Bartel: There’s been a change.
John K Samson: Right. Coming out of the Provincial project I think one of the things I took out of that project is, the idea that I’m a Treaty One writer. That relationship is something that I’ve come to realize I didn’t always recognize, and that is really important to me as a citizen of this place. I’ve found it really useful in the past three or four years of my writing life, to have that parameter that expands outside the idea of Winnipeg. I’ve begun to wonder if Winnipeg actually exists, frankly. I feel like Winnipeg is sort of this collection of loosely integrated communities and this jumble of small towns, in a way.
Portage Avenue in Winnipeg
Adam Klassen Bartel: We have labels for those places. St. Boniface, St. Vital, the West End ….
John K Samson: Which I find are useful, but also this idea of Winnipeg became, I don’t know, it sort of became confusing for me. So the idea of the Treaty relationship, with all of its flaws and with all the failures on the part of settler colonials to actually live up to those duties, has recently reoriented my idea of place as well.
Adam Klassen Bartel: I was going to ask about Treaty One because you mention on your website “I’m from Treaty One land.” It’s not something that’s always mentioned. The question I had was about the tensions and difficulties that can bring up. How multiple people feel like they have claim on this space, someone born in Winnipeg might feel like they have a claim to this place.
John K Samson: It’s definitely a problematic thing and it problematizes in an interesting way for me. I find those issues to be quite fascinating and quite rich. A real dialogue can occur in those intersections and those frictions.
Adam Klassen Bartel: Is that a dialogue you’ve pursued with your publishing house? I’ve noticed a lot of ARP Books are either by aboriginal writers or about aboriginal issues.
John K Samson: Absolutely. I’ve been really grateful and enormously lucky to be able to work with those writers and try and amplify their idea of place and their ideas of justice that I find to be tremendously important and also, selfishly, tremendously enriching to my life as a writer.
Adam Klassen Bartel: What other connections does ARP have to Winnipeg? Are you fairly focused on this place?
John K Samson: Our original name was Arbeiter Ring Publishing, and we took that name from an organization of mostly German Jewish immigrants in the early part of the 20th century who organized under a leftist umbrella. They contained a multitude of far left and leftist groups which I found really attractive. For example: they brought Emma Goldman to speak in Winnipeg and they organized around the general strike. We wanted to identify with activist roots within our community, and that still is an impulse behind our publishing program. The idea of encouraging activism and amplifying the voices of activism that are still rooted in a place, this place, Winnipeg. I do feel like Winnipeg is unique in that it has all the problems of a small town and a big city in one, as well as really unique problems. It’s endlessly interesting to me. That’s the other thing—I never really get bored with Winnipeg. Every once and a while I feel for my listeners. I empathize with the fact that they are yet again going to listen to me compile lists about the city of Winnipeg and talk sing them at them. It does feel like something I’m still trying to get right, this place. I’ve expanded lately to this idea of Treaty One. I feel like I don’t have a grasp on who we are, but I feel like we can get a small grip on where we are and that might be just as important. Maybe more important is trying to understand where we are. I think that that’s another thing that I’m still trying to understand and work on. I think I will be writing about for the rest of the life. And I’m excited by that.
Adam Klassen Bartel: It doesn’t feel overbearing?
John K Samson: No, it doesn’t feel like a burden at all. It feels more like a gift.
Adam Klassen Bartel: I wonder if, this question of who we are, can be extrapolated to Canadians generally. I was talking recently with some friends about, for example, how people of German heritage are German and there’s an understanding of what that is, though that’s of course complicated and a difficult issue, but Canadians always have a proviso in front. I’m Canadian and I’m Mennonite, and I would actually term myself Mennonite first before Canadian. I wonder if this is an issue Canadians have about place?
John K Samson: Absolutely, I think it is to. I grew up in an Icelandic-Canadian milieu, and that is certainly important to the identity of my family and where I come from. It rankles a little bit when someone calls me a Canadian writer. Because I don’t feel like one, I feel like a Winnipeg writer. And I think it’s a problem for some people, because I do feel that there are certainly things that settler-Canadian culture have in common, that are true. But I’ve always felt, for example, a more artistic kinship with the culture that emerged from the Minneapolis punk rock scene than I did from the Toronto one. I think that that grain of truth there is something that I have to listen to. I feel there’s a danger there, like whenever I’m understood as a Canadian writer, my hackles are raised slightly. I’m not entirely sure why. But maybe it’s just the scope of it. It seems too large for me to get a handle on. Which is why I do identify myself as a regional writer, because I feel that applies to me more. Of course, I’m endlessly excited by people from other regions. Like I’m really interested in people who interpret and distort the places they’re from in a way that’s interesting and makes you hear it in a way you hadn’t before.
Adam Klassen Bartel: Are there any “Canadian” writers, big-C Canadian? Anyone who you think of as able to encapsulate that?
John K Samson: The larger idea of Canada?
Adam Klassen Bartel: Yeah, is there anyone you read or listen to that is able to do that?
John K Samson: No. I don’t feel like it, no. I feel like my favourite fiction writers are all pretty intent on understanding the place they are from. I think of Miriam Toews and Southern Manitoba, I think of Michael Crummey and Newfoundland. I don’t think either of those writers would think of themselves first as Canadian writers. I think they would think of themselves, with pride, as regional ones. Or like, you know, Heather O’Neill and Montreal. I think, perhaps the idea of the Canadian writer is more a marketing term than anything else, frankly. And sometimes those are useful and sometimes they’re necessary, those terms. I empathize, certainly, with the publishing industry and trying to understand how to sell books to people, because it’s a challenge. And it’s also a really hopeful act, trying to sell a book, something that I want to encourage. I can’t really think of anyone who really encapsulates a Canadian writer to me.
Adam Klassen Bartel: You might be right, there might be no one person. We could come up with ten names and maybe together they would be something.
John K Samson: Maybe that’s more interesting—creating a kind of tapestry of voices. That is really interesting. To me, I wouldn’t limit myself to the idea of Canadian literature if I were doing so. Writing from everywhere is interesting and revealing. And can provide insight into the place where we’re from, right? I think that’s what I hope for most in my writing and what I look for in the writing of other people, a work that makes one see the place that one is from in a new way.