When Liz Howard’s Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent (McClelland and Stewart, 2015) won the prestigious 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize, a $65,000 purse, she became the youngest recipient of the award (at 31), and the first ever debut book to win.
Howard, of Anishinaabe ancestry, describes the four years writing Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent as means to reconcile her Western education/socialization with her Indigenous and settler ancestry. Her ability to fuse disciplines, theories, art and science astounds.
Howard’s work is inspired by growing up as a child in the Boreal forest, Western philosophy, Nanabush stories, dream work, neuroanatomy, cognitive theories of memory consolidation and retrieval, dendrochronology, poverty, mental illness, material opulence, family narratives and various nocturnal machinations of her magical and detail-oriented mindscape.
Based in Toronto, Howard is one of the most fascinating, complex, and deeply poetic writers in contemporary Canadian Literature. It was an honour to gather via e-interview, and exchange a conversation around Indigenous poetics.
Wela’lin for your time, Liz, your ripe heart and vast intellect.
Shannon Webb-Campbell: You’ve recently released your first book, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, which was awarded the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2016. What inspired this book? How did it come to fruition?
Liz Howard: The book came to fruition just after I completed an MFA thesis in creative writing, supervised by my long-term mentor and supporter, Margaret Christakos. Dionne Brand, who I also studied under during the program, had been appointed to McClelland & Stewart’s new poetry board and asked to see a manuscript. I sent an earlier, incomplete version of the current book and it was accepted. I was floored and humbled and a little scared. My editor Ken Babstock encouraged me to compose new pieces and help me to shape the then extant work. I am perhaps inordinately fortunate to have worked with so many exceptional writers. For this I continue to be immensely grateful.
SWC: Who is the Infinite Citizen? Who is the Shaking Tent? Can you unpack the title of your collection?
LH: The Infinite Citizen could be you or myself, the familiar stranger, a sonorous web of conjectured futurity that necessarily connects all being together in an ethical bind. The Infinite Citizen is therefore indeterminate. The Shaking Tent ceremony is a divinatory rite likely practiced by my Anishinaabe ancestors. A bound jiisakiiwinini (seer) enters a tent constructed for out of birch, pine and covered with bark or hides. The tent shakes with the presence of manitouwaag (spirits). The community can consult the spirits to obtain information about the future, ask for advice, and inquire about relatives at a distance. In researching the knowledge generating practices of my indigenous ancestors, the rite of the Shaking Tent in particular, I began to think about the composition of poetry as my way of engaging with this form of divination/experiment. The title gestures at many things simultaneously: mathematical/philosophical/spiritual considerations of infinity, what is it to be a citizen, a “good citizen,” to be a citizen on one’s own terms or by the terms of others/institutions, global/local citizenship, and all that is subsumed within the concept and history of the Shaking Tent. This ceremony was practiced on the land I was reared on/I write on; however, I have not witnessed it first-hand/it is not well known because it was illegal not long ago and my family was gradually assimilated into a Western mode of living. The title is also an invitation to (as in the ultraviolet solicitation of flowers to bees) or a warning (as in the bright colours and bold patterns of many venomous creatures) of the complexity/difficulty/pleasure/danger to be found within.
SWC: What does it mean to you to have won the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize on your first book?
LH: What does it mean to me? It means I feel a great responsibility to shoulder an honour that was bestowed upon me completely unexpectedly. It means I feel at once grateful and perplexed and tenuous. It has also meant that I have been asked to answer many questions. I have something to answer for. At once a privilege and a challenge.
SWC: How do you approach your poetry? What’s your process like?
LH: I approach my poetry with a necessary caution. Words can do so much, can be harmful but hopefully otherwise. They can also fall flat. I want to learn from everything that can teach me and invite many interlocutors into my writing; something between having many independent variables and conducting a séance. My process often involves reading/writing out of my dreams and composing large blocks of prose derived from a stream-of-consciousness, intertextual interruptions, daily observations and overheard speech. Once I have enough of this “material” I sculpt and cut and paste, rearrange and expand, pontificate or reduce until I arrive at something I feel can stand without me. Some pieces are more research-driven, others like a diary or letter. I always have the sense of a conversation happening and I am always asking about the future even while the divining rod of my speculative mind is tuned to deep time.
SWC: How is writing Indigenous poetry, and this collection in particular, an act of decolonization?
LH: I recently visited the M’Chigeeg First Nation on Manitoulin Island and acquired a poster print of a painting that bore the words “The voice of the land is in our language.” While I was writing the works that would culminate in this book I was at the same time teaching myself some Anishinaabemowin (Ojibway). Some Anishinaabemowin words appear in the book; they were both visually and acoustically beautiful to me. Invoking an indigenous language is a form of decolonization, a way to speak, think, read the “voice of the land,” the words that this land lent to my ancestors. The words that they were forbidden to speak. The words that I have had to take upon myself to learn and then write in by way of understanding who I am. I have always experienced the terrain of my own consciousness, my dreaming and my subjective experience of “reality,” as being informed by the land that I was reared on, by the lakes and creatures of the Boreal forest in Northern Ontario. I have also recognized the paradoxical, near paralyzing debt within my own self of being both indigenous and settler. Poetry has so far been the only way I can “reconcile” this within myself, without forgiving or forgetting, but part of a process of healing and self-knowledge within and via a creative act of decolonization.
SWC: How does poetry create an anti-colonial space, or become an instrumental tool to break through colonial constructions?
LH: I think poetry can create an anti-colonial space if poets choose to address issues of colonization, if they deeply think and write out of a perspective that acknowledges the land(s) that have afforded them a voice and why, the ways in which they have been housed and nourished and how much of this came about via a violence that exists as much today as it has historically and that this actuality is the case in every community in the Americas (and certainly elsewhere).
Can poetry be a tool for indigenous et al. peoples to dismantle colonization, break through constructions? A tall order to be sure but then again all my life I have been beautifully accused of being a dreamer. Why not poetry? It is a song for those ready and willing to sing it. Song is breath and breath is a play of air (atmosphere) within the land. Poetry is rhythm as all life is rhythm. We have language, the voice of the land that is in our language(s). Poetry/song tied humanity in rhythm with the seasons of the land, a mnemonic, a way to be, an archive. It is therefore a fundamental technology, a versatile, evolving technology. I can’t see why it can’t be instrumental today.
SWC: Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent is divided into four sections: Hyperboreal, Of Hereafter Song, Skullambient, and Hyperboreal. What is the nature of the beginning and returning to Hyperboreal?
LH: I wanted to create a loop, an “eternal return” to borrow a concept from Nietzsche. In the first section I set up many of the themes/memories/material that is explored in the middle of the book. In the last “Hyperboreal” section there are cues that send the reader back to earlier poems while also setting a new context. In particular I composed a poem called “Ring Sample: Addendum” which is what I call a dendrochronological combinative sonnet. A sonnet in that it has 14 lines, recombinative in that each line is composed of words/thematic content from earlier poems, and dendrochronological as in each line corresponds to material pulled from the first 14 poems in the book, in sequence, as in reading tree rings or a core sample. I did this to try and provoke in the reader an engagement with their own memory, how the later recombinations made them think of earlier instantiations of the same material or perhaps simply overwrote them or perhaps did something else. It is meant as a way for me to not overly determine the experience of the reader. Each reading and even each subsequent reading undertook by any one individual will be very different, additive, fluctuating, tentative, indeterminate. Indeterminacy is a strong theme in Anishinaabe stories/philosophy. One must decide/understand/interpret things for oneself.
SWC: Who are your go-to Indigenous poets?
LH: Armand Garnet Ruffo, Gloria Anzaldua, Joanne Arnott, Jordan Abel, Marie Annharte Baker, Rosanna Deerchild, George Kenny, Marilyn Dumont, Katherena Vermette, Joy Harjo, Cedar Sigo, Louise Halfe, Gregory Scofield, Shannon Maguire, Shannon Webb-Campbell, Sharron Proulx-Turner, my mother, James Douglas Wesley, many I am no doubt forgetting.
SWC: Where do you see your work in relationship to postness? To trauma?
LH: When I see it here, the word “postness” is so intriguing. I think of “posts,” the posts used to create the skeleton of the Shaking Tent. And also the idea of having a “post,” a position from which to speak or instruct. Then also its function as a prefix as in “postcolonial” or “postmodern.” I think I am all the time navigating my relationship(s) with these different instantiations of “post.” My poetry is a structure I will always be building/refining as in the fact of my anatomy, posts of my skeleton and postural muscles positioning me this and that way in this world: whether fetal in the shower in a position of grief or standing at a lectern addressing the world in a position of authority, or my words in speech or on the page offered beyond my own body becoming subsumed within the spirit/neural coordinates of you/others, I am in a position to give, grieve, harm, grow, and we are together. And “post” in that, if we want to say that is what it is, I am what comes after the cutting/culling/killing/assimilation, I am what has survived. Am I that name?
If I could I would ask my “half-breed” father whether or not I am that name. I would ask why he couldn’t stop killing himself with alcohol and why he could never be there for me. I would ask what happened in the family; there must also be good, not only trauma? Am I the good that comes out of all this, an insanity? If nothing else, my father, I have turned all of our trauma into a gorgeous and unapologetic triumph of our oppression. I bear witness to the trauma of who I am as all beauty shames me, I cannot look away.
LIZ HOWARD’s Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent won the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize, the first time the prize has been awarded to a debut collection. It was also a finalist for the 2015 Governor General’s Award for Poetry, was longlisted for the 2015 Type Book Award, and received an honourable mention for the Alanna Bondar Memorial Book Prize. Her chapbook Skullambient (Ferno House, 2011) was shortlisted for the bp Nichol Chapbook Award. Born and raised in northern Ontario, Howard received an Honours Bachelor of Science with High Distinction from the University of Toronto, and an MFA in Creative Writing through the University of Guelph. She now lives in Toronto where she works as a neurocognitive aging research assistant.
SHANNON WEBB-CAMPBELL is a Mi’kmaq poet, writer, and critic. Still No Word (Breakwater, 2015), recipient of Egale Canada’s Out In Print Award, is her first collection of poems. She was Canadian Women In Literary Arts critic-in-residence 2014, and is a board member.
Shannon holds a MFA in Creative Writing from University of British Columbia, a BA from Dalhousie University, and currently studies and teaches English Literature at Memorial University. Her work is anthologized in IMPACT: Colonialism in Canada (Manitoba First Nation Education Resource, 2017), Where the Nights Are Twice As Long: Love Letters of Canadian Poets (Goose Lane, 2015), This Place A Stranger: Canadian Women Travelling Alone (Caitlin Press, 2015), and others.
She curated “Screening the Offshore” at The Rooms Provincial Museum, Art Gallery and Archives, and worked as a curatorial assistant at Eastern Edge Gallery. Shannon is poetry editor at Plenitude Magazine. She is a member of Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation.