Acid rain from the nickel industry’s roast yards created Sudbury black rock
Liz Howard is the author of Of Hereafter Song, a rewriting of Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha. Jillian Harkness interviewed Liz Howard for The Town Crier’s month-long investigation into poetry and activism.
Jillian Harkness: Your re-writing of the Longfellow poem, The Song of Hiawatha, takes on colonialism, racism, and patriarchy. Is that your framework for the series? Is it in the tradition of writing back?
Liz Howard: I began writing Of Hereafter Song during a long poem workshop led by Jay MillAr in the spring of 2010. At this time I was early in a creative and psychic process to understand myself as a subject under erasure, as a daughter of assimilation. I was educating myself about my Anishinaabe heritage, its language, culture, and history. I also want to say something here about how formative books like Lisa Robertson’s Debbie: An Epic, Erin Moure’s Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person, and Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette were in my thinking around translation, the epic form and feminist poetics.
These influences and researches coalesced in me and a recollection was called forth of a racist cartoon viewed in my childhood featuring “Little Hiawatha” and his misadventures accompanied by Longfellow-inspired narration. The Song of Hiawatha was Longfellow’s attempt to create a North American epic, an “Indian Edda.” The character “Hiawatha” is a distortion/appropriation of Nanabush, an Anishinaabe hero, trickster, genderfluid teacher of medicine, whose stories I read in the form of Daphne Odjig’s beautiful books in grade school.
I acquired Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha in the form of a discount paperback at a used book store on Bloor Street. I read it in my small room in a second floor rental on Indian Road, which bore an offensive carving of a warrior bearing the street number on its facade. What I read filled me with anger, revulsion, sorrow, affect—affect that disarmed me critically at first but filled me with purpose to respond to this racist garbage polite society would rather forget. Certainly the taking on, the taking to the limit, the implication in, the furious toxic desires of colonialism, racism, and patriarchy are a kind of framework.
I aim to dismantle this work and render it only uncannily recognizable. I aim to employ abjection and beauty, history and futurity in whatever doses required to try to “inoculate myself backward,” to borrow a phrase from Ariana Reines, from that initial reading. But perhaps that is not what I intend exactly, it’s also about communicating some of the perverse joy I get from contaminating a figurehead with the stain of my experience. It’s about love, too, impossibly. A preview of this work can be read in my first book, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, forthcoming in April, and I am presently writing to expand it to an appropriately “epic” length.
JH: “Inoculate myself backward” is such a powerful concept. A compelling antidote for anyone who has ever had the experience of feeling oppressed, or has faced abuse or, as you say, erasure. I wonder if readers can partake in the inoculation too, or if it’s more personal?
LH: The fraught empathic inquiry I attempt in my thinking about potential or present readers is a constant concern/joy for me, as I am sure is the case for many other writers, artists, and fellow travellers. It is the generative complication that makes this whole endeavour possible. In Of Hereafter Song, it is my hope that each reader travels with me, is “in on it,” is given the freedom to have whatever reaction(s) that are elicited. It can be read in as many ways as there exist cognitive wildlife out there to experience it. I guess what I want to say is: all are welcome. All readings are, within the bond of mutual respect, welcome. The idea of dispensing a kind of hospitable inoculation really intrigues me though, like there is something in verse that is the opposite of “gifting” smallpox laden blankets.
JH: Can poetry be a form of activism? (I’m thinking about interrogations of languages and discourse; the element of performance or creating community; or any other way.)
LH: This is the sort of question that sends me into a neurotic tailspin. I understand that there has been much discussion as of late around this very notion but I want to offer a nascent, if not rhetorically stunted, answer I wrote in my journal when I first encountered this question:
A poem is an act and every act is a call to experience. The poem, the work, is an axis around which the embodied consciousnesses of the poet/listener co-conspire. This lucent dyad or multiple, whether speculative or actual, is the conduit of the poetic act. It is a charged space of infinite data, possible worlds, a cognitive throttle within the biosphere. I have found it impossible to predict what a poem will become when it calls, and certainly I cannot predict when it enters the public who it will find or how it will be received. I am inclined to believe that no act is without political ramifications or concern. Therefore poetry as an act surely has the potential to be a form of activism. My initial thinking is that activism, to be considered as such, necessitates some form of political intentionality, but then I think again one can never know who will read your work and in what light it may be experienced. So, generally, I think that poetry can be a form of activism or purposed toward that end. I view my own work as a form of decolonial feminist activism. Full stop.
JH: Much of your writing deals with the state of the environment. Do you see this as a political position? What role, if any, should issues of the environment form in a feminist critique or a political poetics?
LH: I remember being four years old in the back of a pickup, in transport between Chapleau and Sudbury, Ontario with my mother and her meagre possessions. We were headed to a new life after the death of my grandfather whose house we had lived in for three years after the disappearance of my biological father. I remember the transition along the highway of spruce bogs to black rock, this landscape burnt to post-glacial scar by acid rain. This rain that came about as a result of the mining activities in Sudbury. This nickel being mined having had arrived by way of a collision of a heavenly body over a million years ago. I breathed the sulphurous air on my way to kindergarten. After some years, when we’d returned to Chapleau, advisories were issued not to use the water as it had been contaminated by run-off chemicals from the lumber mill. The “state of the environment” as an immediate danger or horror has been with me my entire life.
I was reading an old issue of the Chicago Review today at my part-time job. This issue contains an essay by Lisa Robertson wherein she writes that “climate is blood.” I also want to say here that indigenous feminist writing has a lot to say about the relation of writing to the environment (see Indigenous Poetics in Canada) and that the re-combinatory practice of Sudbury-born poet and mentor Margaret Christakos has been exorbitantly nutritive in how I think about a possible ecological poetics.
Do I see my ecologically minded practice as a political position? I suppose I do, I suppose it is necessary. There is too much at stake, is there not? As I write this a mining company is positioning to mine in/near Anishanaabe territory in my hometown. I’m deeply concerned about what environmental/health effects may result from this. Climate is blood. Earth is blood. The delicate membranes of the human system are all too permeable. Verse, then, is also so permeable.
Liz Howard is the author of Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, which is forthcoming by McClelland and Stewart. Liz was born and raised in northern Ontario. She received an Honours Bachelor of Science With High Distinction from the University of Toronto. Her poetry has appeared in Canadian literary journals such as The Capilano Review, The Puritan, and Matrix Magazine. Her Skullambient (Ferno House Press) was shortlisted for the 2012 bpNichol Chapbook Award. She recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing through the University of Guelph and works as a Research Officer in cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto.
Liz Howard’s poem, “The World Is Everything That Is the Case,” appeared in The Puritan Issue XX.