“For me, poetry is really where my heart lives. And the reason why these poems that are maybe such short emotional bursts is because that's how my heart functions. I definitely know I'm not a super technical poet. I'm not a structural form poet. My poetry is just me heart-speaking. And that's it. And that's all I want it to be. And that's all it needs to be.”
Part of why I teach is for that human connection. It's to be able to sit in a circle with a group of people and, like, give them space and give them my attention and let them have whatever emotional, whatever emotions need to come out. And I can’t, I can't do that online.
You're listening to parallel careers for writers who also teach, share the big ideas and practical tips that they take into the classroom.
My name is Francine Cunningham, and I am an Indigenous writer, a visual artist and educator. And I am originally from Calgary, Alberta, but I've been living in Vancouver for many, many years. I have my master's degree in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. And I've actually been teaching for over, I would say at this point, like 15 years now. So I mainly work with youth and I started off working with urban youth and I work a lot with Indigenous youth or youth who maybe come from other cultural groups who sort of felt disconnected from their own culture. And so I work with a lot of youth who were almost scared to identify like who they were, like, they just felt like they wouldn't be accepted. Uh, and especially when it came to like urban Indigenous youth, a lot of them felt really just disconnected from their communities because they didn't live there.
Maybe they'd never lived there, they didn't speak their language. And that was something that I could really connect with because that's how I grew up. I look white, so I have like a lot of white privilege and I grew up with that. But I didn't ever really know how to name that growing up. I didn't know what that was. And I didn't know how to talk about it. Just growing up with my mom who did not look like me. And she experienced so much racism and I had to watch that and I didn't really understand it. And then finally being able to talk about it was just so, like, releasing for me. And so when I sit around and talk to youth and they feel that way, it just really made me want to make this something that I do as a career. Like, it just really made me want to like sit down with more youth across the country and be like, yeah, it's okay to have these feelings.
And that for these youth that I work with, I just always want them to know like their words do matter. Like they matter a lot.
And recently I've sort of branched off into writing with adults. And a lot of it I find is just me giving people permission in a way to write their own stories. Or permission to take the time out of their life to write. And I find that a lot for adults—which is a very interesting thing—is that a lot of them just feel so relieved that I'm like, no, it's okay. If you want to like paint for 20 minutes a day, it's okay. You can do that. When I sit down with adults and they're just so hesitant or scared to even like put a line on a piece of paper, and then I go into a class with kindergarteners who are just paint everywhere.
Right. And it's just such a different freedom. And I think part of it is because we give kindergarteners paint every day. But with adults, like how often do you have another adult telling you what to do or to like giving you the stuff or like the freedom to do that? You don't. Like you're in charge of yourself. So I really think of my workshops is like really special times if maybe that's the only time in that adult’s life, that they will ever try to write something brand new and it could be. And I'm very cognizant of that. So I always try and make it really special and really meditative and hopefully something that they can carry with them forever.
Excerpt from On/Me
/Origin of a Designation
i hadn't heard the term white passing until recently
it wasn't something I grew up with—white passing,
said like bad words, strung together to hurt, to designate, to demarcate
like I should be something other than white
like I should have skin other than what I have
like I was called white buffalo growing up, a difference in the lineup of cousins
marked but not known why
a part of the land
a bill c
status card holder
the buck stops with me,
my mom always said that to my sisters and me growing up
the buck stops with me
as if to say
you are not indian in the government's eyes
you are not indian in the people's eyes
you are not
but then why do I hear cree in my dreams?
My first book of poetry is called On/Me and it came out with Caitlin Press in 2019. I remember the exact moment I conceptualized it. I was sitting on the city transit and I was looking at the window and I was composing work in my brain. And I was like, thinking about this poem about like, Oh, I'm going to read a poem by my auntie. And I was like, well, what do I think about my auntie? And like the big booming laughter. And I was like, well, that's all you need. Right? Like, that's all I need is just this like two line like that.
And then I was like, well, if you think about my auntie, then I have to think about my uncles. And then I have that one all about like my uncles, like, it's just the sound. It's just “sssss” it's like, it's just an S line.
So from there, I was like both like my aunties and my uncles both made me who I am. Like they had so much influence in my life. And then I'm like, all my family did. And so it really just came to this like, Oh, it's like an encyclopedia of like who I am, all these different moments they created, who I am.
For me, poetry is really where my heart lives. And the reason why these poems that are maybe such like short emotional bursts is because that's how, like, my heart functions. I definitely know I'm not like a super technical poet. I'm not like a structural form poet. My poetry is just me like heart-speaking. And that's it. And that's all I want it to be. And that's all it needs to be.
Oral tradition, in terms of storytelling is--for me, anyhow--is sitting at the kitchen table, listening to my kokum, tell me stories and just being like really patient with it and just letting it happen.
And that's just how I grew up. You know, I think everybody, even if they maybe don't recognize that they come from an oral, traditional culture, which I think most are, we just maybe just don't recognize it anymore. But it really did come from the idea of just sitting around and listening to people tell their own stories. And so, what is your own story? It’s your own heart, it's your own emotion, it's your own experience.
Excerpt from On/Me
/ For the Other Mixed-Blood Half-Breed Urban NDNs
our worth is not derived from where we were not raised
knowing cement streets is not an evil thing
having never set foot on the reserves that our mothers and fathers,
grandmothers and grandfathers came from does not make us less than
having skin that isn't what it's supposed to look like does not make you unworthy
having memory away from the land does not make you unconnected
not having your ancestral language filling your mouth does not mean you cannot speak
recognize that no one can take away all that you are
whether you have a little plastic card or not
i work with too many youth who are beaten down, broken
by their own people
by the rest of Canada
but these youth do not deserve to feel so alone
i grew up feeling in-between
not knowing where I belong
not belonging anywhere
skin unlike my mother's
english instead of cree
scared to go to the land where my people came from
inside and out
words that are spoken cavalierly
for those of us raised away
our tradition is our lived family.
So when it comes to who I write for and who I encourage students to write for, I would say that yes and no I write for a specific audience. This project On/Me, I wrote for a specific audience. I wrote it for Indigenous youth. Obviously I'm glad the whole world or everyone can enjoy it, but I really did write it for them. And they're the audience that I care most about that's getting something from it. And then when it comes to my students, uh, I pretty much encourage them just to write for themselves and for whatever they need to feel and then say, hopefully people get something out of it. If you want to share it, maybe you don't, maybe you're writing this just for yourself.
And especially, I feel like when it comes to community work and kids may be sometimes want to share the stories that they heard growing up or stories maybe they heard in ceremony. And I think one of my roles is to counsel them on, Hey, I think it's really great you want to share that story and you want to write that story, but maybe write it just for your community. There are certain stories and stuff that shouldn't come out of community. And I love having those conversations with them and being like, why don't you invite your parents or your kokum or whoever into thing. And maybe we can talk about it all together about like, why it's important to keep things in your community.
And I also believe that as individual writers, it's so important that we keep stories for ourselves because when, when the nights grow dim and we're all alone, it's nice to have memories that you haven't shared with the entire world because you lose something when you do that. Uh, and especially if you're selling them, you leave something a little bit more.
So a practice that I do have, I don't even know.
I don't even have a word for it, but I like to go into the forest. And I like to just sit for a long time in one spot. The first time I did this, it was actually, it was at the Banff Centre. I was just feeling really frustrated or something with what I was doing. And so usually it's like, Oh, gotta be productive, productive, got to take my notebook into the forest and write, you know, cut, gotta describe everything that's around me. Gotta be productive. And I was like, no, I'm not going to take a notebook or a pen. I'm not going to take my phone. I'm not going to take anything that would allow me to write. So I went out and I found the spot and I just sat down and I just sat there for like, I don't even know it was like three hours, maybe more.
And it was so crazy because at like the beginning, I thought I saw everything. But by the end I looked down and there was like flowers at my knee. And I looked up and there was like a legit gigantic spider web. And then there was a crow sitting and watching me. I was like, how long has he been there? And it just really just made me realize that at how much our brain literally filters out, because it's not relevant to like, I don't know our productivity or like what we're trying to do in that moment. And then I found like when I was doing that, that I just started talking out loud and just composing, composing work out loud. And it was so freeing. I can't tell you how freeing it was to know that I would never write these words down, that they would never be used for anything.
when I took apart the shower head
i found the body of a beetle
its small legs were stuck in the gaps of the mesh
the body slick, covered in brown slime
i thought of the shower I'd taken out morning
the feel of the water as it lapped at my toes
as the drain, clogged with hair, let the water fill up
i thought of the sigh of pleasure i let out
as the heat let me forget, for a moment
the rusty brown dirt
the box that held you
the darkness of that hole
i pried the body out with a pair of tweezers
hovered over the toilet bowl
but felt sadness
lying on the linoleum
among the cobwebs of stray hair and dust
the disappearing body of the beetle beside me
I thought of you again
without the heat of the shower
without the urge to forget
I thought of you
your disappearing body
and felt my grief
This exercise is called words matter. And it's something that I go through with any student that I ever work with. I think it's really important. When you use your words with wisdom and with intention, you are putting something really special into the world. And if you're maybe not thinking about what you're saying or what you're writing or what you're putting out into the world, you don't know the consequences that it's having. And so when I think about poetry, I think one of the powers of poetry is that poetry allows your reader or your listener to feel something. If you use the words that are inside of you in this really intentional way, someone will feel something. And the only way that you can really change someone is by getting them to feel something. And so when I come at a piece of writing, I always stop and I ask myself five questions.
What am I standing up for? What am I standing against? What do I believe in? What do I hope for? And what am I staying silent about? So for me, I would say the biggest one that I'm always so scared to tackle is what am I staying silent about? And I can almost guarantee you, if you can answer that question, honestly, with yourself, you are going to write something incredible.
As an example of a poem that challenged me to do all of these things from my book--I'm going to read it--and you're going to see all of those questions. So this poem is On Grief and it's called Hospital Visits.
my mother never had a chance to be white passing
she was always known by the brown in her skin,
the cree in her features,
what strangers thought she was,
never known for the unseen qualities, the details
her faith, her garden lush in summer, her laughter that burst through spaces
what was seen was beyond her control
what they thought they knew
when I was a teenager we moved to a small town in the north
it was during the oka crisis
protest strung along the country
my mom, scared to go outside
these people will think i'm one of them, the bad indians,
the protesting Indians
she was afraid, see,
of getting insults hurled at her, beaten up
in a new place with faces that didn't know her details
that only knew the colour of her skin
when she got sick, really really sick,
she went to the hospital
and they didn't see the details then either
so used to “fixing up” the problem brown people
they didn't see the real her
so they sent her away
and so she came back
and they always sent her away
that’s what they called her lung cancer until she couldn't breathe anymore
until it was stage iv and in her back and brain
because by then they couldn't deny her anymore
they couldn't see her as a drunk indian, someone to be forgotten
because they knew then
it was the tumor in her brain, not her skin colour,
that was the problem
but even then, when they knew,
they wouldn't give her morphine for the pain
still convinced she was her skin colour and their perception
she had to fight for relief
she had to fight for them to see the details
never mind my mom never drank,
didn't smoke, didn't do drugs, hardly ever swore, was a christian
none of those details mattered
and after the first stirrings of pain in her chest twelve months before
she was gone
So that poem is sort of example of like what I'm talking about of speaking up for something, speaking up for what I believe in, and for sure what I was staying silent about. And that was just my rage at the medical system and of just, like, the systemic racism and just a lot of emotions and feelings that I had. And I really like thought about these questions when I was writing that poem. I think about these questions all the time, every day. And it really informs my writing.
You’ve been listening to Parallel Careers, which is produced by myself, Claire Tacon in partnership with The New Quarterly literary magazine. Erin MacIndoe-Sproule is our Technical Producer and Story Editor. Financial and in-kind support was provided by the The Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, St. Jerome’s University and the Government of Canada. The music you heard on this episode was composed by Amadeo Ventura. You can hear more of his music at amadeoventura.weebly.com
Visit tnq.ca/parallel for more information on Francine’s work, including her collection On/Me. There, you can also listen to outtakes from this episode and check out more teaching and writing tips. Thanks for listening.
In this episode, Francine Cunningham discusses giving people permission to write their own stories. She discusses:
0:32 | Working with youth who feel disconnected from their own culture
2:21 | Giving adults permission to be creative
4:55 | The development of her award-winning collection On/Me and what it’s like to write an encyclopedia of the self
8:12 | Why it’s important to keep some stories for yourself and your community
9:48 | What we notice when we stop constantly trying to be productive
12:27 | Her exercise “Words Matter” and the five essential questions to ask yourself when you’re writing
Write out a quick list of everything you are standing up for in your writing.
Dealing with Failure
So when it comes to failures inside of the classroom, there will be many—they will happen. I would say the biggest times, I feel bad and sad is when I'm working with high school students and some of them are forced to be there and they just really don't want to be there. And no matter how happy and joyful and full of energy I am, they just never connect. And they just have their head down on the desk the whole time.
And it always makes me really sad cause I just want them to experience the joy. But I always have to remember, so maybe they're just having a bad day. Maybe they're really hungry. Maybe they were up all night. There's a whole bunch of other factors that don't include me. Just being really aware of that. And that took me a really long time to get to that point where I wasn't just kicking myself and just being like, ah, you're a terrible teacher afterwards. And just being like, you know what, maybe this just wasn't for me. Maybe I'm not the teacher for this person. And that's okay. They'll have another teacher. So that, that would be the failures.
So how I put together a workshop, and how I tailor a workshop to whichever participants are going to be there. First, I asked the organizers: 1) What is your festival about? What is your afterschool program about? What age group am I talking to? Ask as many questions as you can. And then the first thing I do when we get there and we sit in a circle is ask, “Who are you? Why are you here?”
If people are really shy, I asked standard questions like, “Okay, who here considers themselves a writer?” Usually, maybe one person puts up their hand. I'm like, “Okay, who here writes in a journal at night? Who here has ever written a diary, maybe when you were a kid? Who here writes tweets? Who here does memes?” And just really showing them that they are creating, they are writing. Maybe it's not what you want to be writing, but you are writing something.
So I just ask a lot of questions. And then I have a lot of standard workshops on my laptop, like different files. And so, as people are talking, I can start mix and matching a little bit based on what's happening there. And that just comes with time and experience though.
So for me, inside of a workshop, like what's the point of a writing workshop if you don't get to spend most of the time writing? I just don't understand it. If you can't come out of a workshop with a piece written—at least started or something—then why were you there? Really, I don't understand. So I definitely like to, to make sure there's lots of space for writing. So in a three-hour workshop, you know, I'll start it off with a chunk of writing, do a little bit of lecture, writing, lecture, long piece of writing, like writing time, reading out loud. I usually end it with reading out loud.
The materials that I use in my classroom? Okay. Number one: Spotify playlist, very important. I have a playlist with just songs without lyrics, because I like to play it really loud. So then nobody can talk. So they don't distract each other. So that, and a Bluetooth speaker. I also like to bring my standard kit of like watercolor palette, brushes, pencils, markers, erasers, crayons, all that sort of that stuff. And then I always, always have copy paper, just blank, copy paper, because I find so many people bring their notebooks and they're like, “Oh my precious notebook that I spent $30 on. I don't want to write something crappy in here.” And so they don't end up writing anything at all. But then if I hand them a piece of just blank copy paper, they're like, “Oh, okay. Like I can try and fail on this because I can just throw it away.”
So when it comes to students who are intimidated about writing on the spot, what helps is that I write also on the spot. So I'm not just sitting there staring at them. I'm like seriously writing for myself. Like this is stuff that I will use in the future. Like I'm serious about it. And then, you know, if 95% of the class is like heads down writing and we have this music on and it's nice and loud, it's like an ambient thing. Then they too will eventually start writing. It may not be till the last minute before it's over, but they will eventually. You've just got to wait them out.
Francine Cunningham is an award-winning Indigenous writer, artist, and educator originally from Calgary, AB but who currently resides in Vancouver, BC. She is a graduate of the UBC Creative Writing MFA program and a recent winner of The Indigenous Voices Award in the 2019 Unpublished Prose Category and of The Hnatyshyn Foundation’s REVEAL Indigenous Art Award.
Her fiction has appeared in Grain Magazine as the 2018 Short Prose Award winner, on The Malahat Review’s Far Horizon’s Prose shortlist, Joyland Magazine, The Puritan Magazine, and more. Her debut book of poetry is titled On/Me (Caitlin Press).