By Shannon Webb-Campbell
In Bear River First Nation’s Shalan Joudry’s debut collection, Generations Re-Merging (Gaspereau Press), she artfully explores the relationships between generations, her Mi’kmaq ancestors, identity, parenthood, and traditional teachings. While she draws as much from the landscape as her elders, Joudry’s inner wisdom resounds in her work. Her poems embrace life, loss and love, endurance and beauty, social and ecological shifts.
I had the pleasure of being introduced to you and your work at PetaPan First Light Indigenous Artist Symposium this summer in Truro, Nova Scotia. It was the first time Aboriginal artists from across Atlantic Canada, as well as each province’s arts councils, gathered. You were on a panel of a literary arts workshop as both poet and storyteller. I am curious, how do the two art forms relate to one another?
With time and experience I have learned how to use plot and character in my oral storytelling to convey teachings and understandings about our world. To me, poetry is still a kind of storytelling; however, it is only in my songwriting and poetry that I carve so specifically with language and my own rhythm. Only in my poetry do I hone in on a memory or feeling without temporal scale. The images hang in the air for me to really contemplate the complexities and shades of what I’m describing.
As an oral or written storyteller, I consider my audience and what they need from me. I was taught that stories can be medicine or tools to teach and this is how I see my role as a storyteller. However, my poetry is a personal medicine. The pieces that I selected for the book were ones I had hoped might be for others as well.
In the stunning prologue to your collection, Generations Re-Merging, you write: “Each generation must make their own/ journey through a thick terrain./ How ever we get lost along the way, let us rejoice in the healing steps that follow./ I hope we all continue to gather at the edge of the woods where the generations/ before us and after us/ re-merge.” How has poetry played a role in your own healing steps and in turn led you the edge of the woods?
Since I was a young age, poetry and songwriting were my artistic mediums to use for healing. I would use poetry to come to peace with an event or struggle, like the burning of my house or living in an isolated northern community as a child. By crafting those pieces, I was putting them to rest. I continue to use poetry in trying to understand what I bear witness to.
The edge of the woods is another place that I go physically for guidance, healing, and inspiration. The land fascinates me and makes me feel alive. I could not imagine writing a collection of poetry without the forest being part of that. I have walked challenging landscapes both physically and as analogy. I was taught that the forest can teach us like holding mirrors up against ourselves. Poetry does the same thing in my world. We can only understand our past or future if we are willing to look.
In Bear River First Nation, a community project had been underway in the past few years to inspire a younger generation to trek our ancestral travelling routes from our coastal community to our inland wintering grounds of Kejimkujik. I found it incredibly suiting in our modern world and all that we must reclaim, including our relationship to the land and each other.
As a fellow Mi’kmaq poet, I am in awe of your work. It’s deeply rooted in your relationship to your community in Bear River First Nation and weaves history, family, and ancestry. What led you to writing poetry?
At the age of ten, I wanted the challenge of playing with words to make as deep a meaning as possible. On one page. It began with that.
I am aware that poetry isn’t as common publically in Mi’kmaw communities as other arts (such as beading, dancing, singing, et cetera). Some people suggest it is also attributed to our culture being more oral than the literary word-playing that goes into poetry. I believe that poetry is another form of storytelling and so I envision that we will see an increase of Mi’kmaw poetry in the next generations.
One of the conversations that came out of our time at PetaPan is the relationship between oral storytelling and written literature. How does oral culture inform or hinder poetry? Or vice versa, how does poetry hinder oral culture?
With my oral storytelling and performance, I am able to engage with audience and improvise edits when needed for who is there around me in that moment, whereas in my poetry or written story, I don’t have the ability to change the tone or texture of what I’m recounting. There is an unsettling permanency in that one version on paper that goes against an instinct to keep my arts oral and present. I do find the printed arts intimidating and acknowledge that some stories lose a bit of their power by being flattened dimensionally on paper. However, with poetry I am so very concise with my choice of words, edited over time, and so I prefer to see them on a page left in the manner in which I had carved them. This way, poetry and oral storytelling become the perfect antidotes in my life’s art. I enjoy the two forms, just as I enjoy singing and dancing stories for different reasons. I’m not sure I would ever use only one medium. Each story must find its most fitting medium and I use that.
One aspect I grapple with in my own work is my fragmented relationship to my Indigenous ancestry. In fact, I find myself hesitant to say I am an Indigenous writer, as I have only discovered my Mi’kmaq lineage in my 20s. Yet, I do. So much of my work, and experience feels rooted in the discovery, exploration, and connection to ancestry. When I read your work, I felt a deep sense of homecoming. I breathed in the earth of your poems, and felt cradled in your poetics. I am wondering, what does it mean to you to be an Indigenous poet? Who is an Indigenous poet, and who isn’t?
I should first take a moment to acknowledge that I also have non-native ancestry.
I should also preface with the fact that I am a poet because that is one of my artistic mediums I was drawn to.
In this conversation, I’m comfortable being called an “indigenous poet.” I identify this way because I make choices every day about practicing Mi’kmaw culture. Every day I question how to live out my responsibility to my Mi’kmaw ancestors, my Mi’kmaw community today, and future Mi’kmaq. I identify as part of the Mi’kmaw collective because the history, community, and culture permeate through almost everything that makes up me. Therefore, when I write, I am being guided and inspired by all of these things. I write as an indigenous poet not because my mind wanted to, but because I have no idea how else to be.
Other poets who live their indigenous identity or responsibility to their history, community, culture, and future are also indigenous poets.
In the acknowledgements of your poetry collection, you thank the “land and our ancestors who made it possible we are still here. I give thanks to the generations who came before me, to my grandparents and my parents, Sylvia Moore and Steven Joudry.” In reading this, I conceived the collection as a love letter to the generations before us and the generations that will come after us. Could you tell us a little bit about your creative process as well as your intentions for Generations Re-Merging?
I do write with an intention to honour our past and future. With that honouring is a humility. There is also a very deep sadness. I’ve renewed myself and my hope and for humanity in this work. I have been writing poetry over decades and eventually the process to make it a collection is what took the prayers and intention in deciding which pieces and how to layer them for an audience. This book together is a story—my story. But this comes at a time in our world where I believe we need more Indigenous arts and voices more than ever before. It is the arts that can fill in textures and shadows of our humanity and complexities than the news stories we see about our communities, the political or health strife. If non-native families have only the news to understand who we are as Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia, then we will have a difficult time finding a common future.
I also wanted to write some poems for Mi’kmaq. I wanted a few of these to ring more profoundly for other Mi’kmaw readers, knowing the experience I was describing and I didn’t feel the need to translate the meaning.
I want everyone to celebrate that we are poets. We do have a place in the literary arts. There’s more coming.
In several of your poems, you use the Mi’kmaq language, including; “sun’l: cranberries,” “kesaul: I love you,” “kesik: winter,” “sipu: river,” “mimikejk: butterflies,” “wela’lioq: thank you (all),” and “kitpu: eagle.” I am interested in the weaving of English and Mi’kmaq and the poetic relationship between the fragments—how they inform and relate to one another in the context of poetry. What draws you to work in both languages?
I have learned more of the language as an adult but the words I used in Mi’kmaw are ones that have been entrenched into my head voice and I felt it more authentic to my piece if I used the word that was coming to me in the moment of writing. I made the decision not to use all English even if it would have been easier for English readers. Even if the reader is uncomfortable with the Mi’kmaw words, at least they have seen the letters together and formed a sound in their minds. I believe we can be too complacent in believing there is only one way to see the world or only one language to the land and worldview around us.
More than that, there is a poem where I could only share the teaching using our Mi’kmaw language—such as exclusive and inclusive verb conjugations. I intend to continue to use the Mi’kmaw language in my work.
In your work, you wade between wishful thinking for your children and their future as well as honouring and recognizing a painful history. How does poetry embody, or hold a space for, history and truth?
Canadian history ripples through my own identity and in most of the book. Although these poems are personal moments, with most there is some connection to our Mi’kmaw-colonial history. An example is the trans-generational hurt of the young people I write about in “Yellow Pond” and “Little Warriors” or about the Mi’kmaw language instructors wanting pupils in their community.
I believe this goes back to the analogy of the mirror that poetry can act as for us. Sometimes, the arts can acknowledge a painful history in a healing way rather than being a confrontation or lecture. In fact, editor Andrew Steeves at Gaspereau was another layer of self-checking to make sure that each piece in the collection was tempered consistently with my intention of that healing. And that medicine cannot come without acknowledging first.
What sort of research went into writing the collection Generations Re-Merging?
The only book-specific research or extra work I needed to conduct was to review the Mi’kmaw language words with a linguist I work with. She graciously gave me the feedback on orthography and grammar.
Other than that, these are my stories and my truth as I have lived and interpreted them.
How does feminism inform your work?
I am a mother, female cultural interpreter, and active in our community. It is through my strong female values and identity that I experience the world and it comes out in my poetry. I’m tempted to point out specifics; however, I will leave that to the readers.
Throughout your book, you write about the land, Nova Scotia’s terrain, as well as your local landscape, Bear River First Nation. Why is the land central to your work?
What would we be without the land? I can’t imagine separating myself from the land. The closer I feel to the earth, the water, the elements, the closer I understand myself. My arts and poetry flow from that connection.
As a first-time published poet, what has the experience of having your work out there in the word been? What are you words of caution or celebration for first-time published poets?
This is indeed my first book and it felt akin to jumping into a waterfall. At first, when the editor contacted me, I was absolutely thrilled that a publisher believed it had a life outside my hands. However, as the launch date was approaching, an anxiety was setting in. One night, I thought, “Why did I have to publish my personal poems? What if—” There were frightening thoughts. An experienced poet calmed my nerves and taught me to let it go into the world without me.
The caution that I felt myself was once you decide to publish, make sure that the selection are the ones you feel are ready to be set out forever. And if you aren’t positive, it’s okay to let some sit with you for another while. There are some I held back.
Poets always remind poets that if the book deal isn’t working, don’t stop writing. Don’t stop honing your art. Don’t stop sharing, either. When the book does come be ready to let go. And don’t measure yourself parallel to the book. As Sue Goyette shared with me, the book will go on its own journey.
And I hope the book has found you carefully.
Shalan Joudry is of Mi’kmaw and non-Mi’kmaw descent and has lived all across Canada to train and work in the arts, Mi’kmaw culture, and environmental studies. She’s a multi-disciplinary artist, including being a writer, performance artist and storyteller whose poetry has appeared in literary journals and anthologies. In her mid 20s, she settled back in home territory of Kespukwitk (southwest Nova Scotia) to raise her two daughters in their community of L’sitkuk (Bear River First Nation). There she works as a cultural interpreter and community ecologist. Her first book, Generations Re-merging was published by Gaspereau Press in April 2014.
Currently, she is earning her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. Her forthcoming poetry collection, Still No Word (Breakwater Books, 2015), is her first book. Shannon’s criticism, poetry, and fiction have appeared in numerous anthologies, literary journals and magazines. She lives in Halifax.