I certainly see the plasticity and the infinite possibilities there are within language as a way to expand the limits of the, the quote unquote world and a way to dream of another world where liberation is possible. And to try and, in some way, approach it in language as a way of possibly immanentizing it. Some people might think that’s sort of anarchical or utopian, but I think that one needs the audacity to be able to dream of these things. And that is what I’m trying to do in language.
You’re listening to Parallel Careers, where writers who also teach share the big ideas and practical tips that they take into the classroom.
I’m Liz Howard, I’m a mixed-settler Anishinaabe poet, editor and teacher based here in Toronto on the traditional territories of the Mississauga of the Credit, the Haudenosaunee, the Anishinaabeg, the Chippewa and the Wendat. And it, it is of course now home to diverse Indigenous peoples and people from all around the world. And I’m originally from a really small town called Chapleau in Northern Ontario on Treaty 9 territory.
I remember I was quite young. I was maybe four or five years old and my, my mother and I had been donated a box of books, and these were books filled with words and like not pictures and I couldn’t read and I remember staying up at night and just staring at these pages and sort of trying to will these marks to reveal their secrets to me. I had this sense that there was so much knowledge out there that I didn’t have access to that were contained in books that was contained in written language.
And I was sort of desperate to access it, to understand. And eventually I did. Eventually I did learn how to read and once I came across, uh, an old copy of Macbeth that was in a box in the basement of my mother’s things. And she had dropped out of high school when she was 16 and I suppose she’d never returned some of the books that she had, you know, from an English class. And I started reading Macbeth and of course I didn’t quite understand everything, but the core images of the strange sisters, the witches, who spoke in trochaic tetrameter and of a murdered king and a sleep-walking sort of guilty queen, stuck with me. And something of the rhythm, how it was written, it stuck in my head almost like an ear worm.
I found my thoughts, my internal thoughts, tuning or sort of entraining to this rhythm that had launched itself into my brain, from reading Macbeth. And then years later, a friend brought me to the town library. And I’d never seen so many books before. And I was very excited. Shakespeare was located in the drama section, which was right beside the poetry section. And so, naturally, I drifted over to the poetry section. I took out, um, I think like an anthology of modern verse. And I also read a lot of Canadian poetry like Leonard Cohen and Irving Layton and Susan Musgrave. And it informed certain sensibilities that I had around language and lineation and content, and what could be done with words, and the freedom and possibility.
And then when I was about 11 years old, my youngest brother was born and I had to move into the basement of our house.
And the house is located out on the highway between a swamp and a graveyard. And behind the house is the boreal forest. And it stretches north all the way to James Bay, to the James Bay low lands. And I spent a lot of time in the forest and writing, writing in the forest and the land very much entered into the content of my poems. And then also in the basement, I had a dream one night that I screamed so loud that I woke up the dead in the graveyard. And in the dream I left my house and the people from the graveyard were coming towards me in an angry sort of way to confront me for waking them from the dead. And I came to see my writing as a conversation with another realm or the dead or an ancestral realm.
And I think those experiences, made me a writer, whether I intended to sort of be one or not.
Excerpt from Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent
Over there on the green
lawn under a sick pine
is the body of the bird
his plumage blue when
I go to look at him and
wonder if he’s dead but
his chest sort of heaves
so I bend down closer
look how the breast
of the bird splits open
and a fist of maggots
spills out on the grass
a necklace of sticky
pearls in peristalsis ribbed
and shining in the July
light invertebrates that
form an anecdote before
I go back into our clapboard
house to look at the Sears
catalogue and dream
I am a girl posed into
happiness look at me
here now in this new
dress I’ve bought with my
own money at age twenty
in the city when the cops
question me I flash my
passport thinking of
lichen inching down
a branch of a tree over
the town river when I was
small and somewhere my
birth father is drunk and
homeless, half-mad when
the cops ask for his name
he’ll say, December
Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent is a book of poetry in four parts. And it uses as an extended metaphor, the ceremony of the shaking tent, which is an Anishinaabe sacred rite, in which a Jiisakiiwinini or conjurer enters a tent, which is specifically constructed for the purpose of receiving information from beyond the human world. Information about the future, there’s a sort of oracular element to it. And also, as a way to receive information about, you know, relatives at a distance and all manner of things. I had come to a point in my writing where I’d seen my writing as in kind with this ceremonial rite. That writing or poetry itself was a metaphorical shaking tent for myself. And the book largely deals with mixed-race identity of being both Indigenous Anishinaabe and also settler. And so this is an identity which is somewhat fraught and perhaps even at odds with itself.
In terms of finding form, something that I always tell my students is that the page is a frame and also a field, an energetic field, of possibility and of potential. So how a poem is arranged on a page and the blank space around and within a poem can speak as much as what is written there. So in my first book, I have several poems such as “Look Book” and “1992,” which all feature short, heavily enjambed lines. The reason that I chose this form was number one, it’s a visual signal to the reader that a specific poetic experience is about to happen. All of those poems contain first-person anecdotes, but they are heavily enjambed so as to kind of stop or interrupt the reading process, so you can’t just really skim over it.
You really have to read each line and it’s often enjambed in a way that it’s resisting sense. You really have to slow down and take it in a kind of piecemeal fashion and knit it all together. Because I find it’s so easy to just skim a kind of anecdotal poem and this slows down the process to allow a sense of gravity to enter.
Excerpt from Letters in a Bruised Cosmos
The universe broadcasts its lifespan in radiant heat. I need to believe my account will outpace its ending. Technical oracle, a feed that repeats itself, a reckoning. What I felt was complete disorientation. But the night sky is more than a map to read into the end and origin of everything. There is a guilt that folds into me like humanity, a darkness in the signal. A mark science confides is evidence of another universe, the collision of an afterbirth. If I continue, can I hold the body beyond its contact traces of violation and intimacy? The palimpsest furniture of our specious present, a succession of excess. I am here after all for decadence and silence. See this decadence—a bloom beneath the skin of my invitation.
Not truth, but surface. The hole in the sky.
Letters in a Bruised Cosmos is my second collection that came out with McClelland & Stewart in June, 2021. And it invokes both Western astrophysical science and cosmology, as well as Indigenous, specifically Anishinaabe, sky knowledge to examine the impact and the marks that we leave on and in each other as we move through life on not only an interpersonal level, but also a generational level, and across history as well.
I feel as though I largely have the disposition of a scavenger, of really making use of what is on hand. And I also think that perhaps having an education where, you know, the three Rs (reduce, reuse and recycle) was sort of hammered into my head may have translated somewhat into my own work. And it’s also in a way reflective or perhaps, you know, a product of poverty. When I was a kid, my mom and I would often go thrifting at the second-hand store in town because we couldn’t really afford anything else in terms of buying clothes. And my mother also spent a substantial amount of time and I would’ve of course, being a kid have to come with her, but she would go to the town dump to find little, little projects and things of interest and whatever could be useful that people have just thrown away. And a lot of the books that I had as a kid came from the dump.
So I really feel that this sort of reusing, recycling, scavenging is really in my blood and also repetition itself is coming through a lineage that extends probably even before her. Repetition of language through Gertrude Stein and then studying with Margaret Christakos and also reading the work of Lisa Robertson and also listening to a lot of music that’s characterized by remixing and sampling. So in my work, I’m always trying to make a sort of sewing motion in which things return. So having different elements return, but in slightly different ways that produces a sort of haunting or a kind of echo within the text. And I’m also interested in how that works in terms of memory and how encountering the same material in a new context, then sort of cues one’s memory for encountering it in a previous context. And this is an idea which comes to me through cognitive psychology.
And I worked in a cognitive, I managed a cognitive psychology at U of T for nine years. And I was interested in how I could try and introduce some of those ideas or principles into my writing.
I advise my students to keep notes and a journal, a dedicated writing journal, physical, if possible, and to go to texts that they might find interesting or that they might even encounter in every day. Like our lives are actually full of text, whether we intend to be exposed to it or not. Even tweets, even just, you know, scrolling, you encounter so much written language. And I encourage them to write down interesting things that they see, or maybe even overhear and to work with that material, or even write in conversation with pieces of material that they’ve sort of borrowed or thrifted.
I’ve asked students to pick a lyric or chorus of a song and to try and write in the rhythm of that piece of music, or to write in the rhythm of a line from a poem that they really love and to try and sample it and place it inside of their own work and remix it and remix their work around it. Practice, you know, breaking it down and deconstructing it into its elementary parts and plugging it into your own work.
Excerpt from Letters in a Bruised Cosmos
I Dream in Gmail
PMS winter solstice, the hereditary gist of a fractal
interior. I buried another yesterday by the back door
of this expanding universe just before I dreamt in Gmail.
As if all new visions visit digitally: a reply all cri de coeur
from Athens, a bcc-promoted punk tour streamed via a cave
system linked to the romantic history of strange quarks.
Spooky action at a distance. I slid down a snow bank into a
northern stream and then you smiled as if you like me now,
now that my ass is wet. At midnight that stream became the
border between New France and my dream of being intelligible.
Then I’m awake in the garage with my firstborn thought.
A thought that sublimates into a braid of snowflakes.
What could offer me an office in the February pension:
a warmth that only makes its way into the deepest
pockets. A novice love that can’t help but become
a flight risk.
An exercise that I often share with students is one that was introduced to me when I was a graduate student in Dionne Brand’s poetry workshop. Of course, this experience was so foundational. And she had us write down three things. The first thing was a sight of astonishment. You know, something that you saw that completely sort of overwhelmed or struck you. Could be something that is like incredibly beautiful.
A lot of people who’ve done this exercise, you know, they wrote about the Grand Canyon. Or even something kind of scary or shocking. The second thing is to write about your first memory or very early memory in as much detail as you’re able to. And the third thing is to write about when you first believe that you became self-aware. So, saw yourself as a self or experienced a sense of an inner mind. And failing that, a time you were really self-conscious or aware of yourself or even embarrassed. And so I’ll have students write out each of those. And then in timed increments, working through those three prompts to then free write in response to each one of those prompts. So not just writing about the specific thing you saw or the specific memory, but to write about all of the things that are also coming through, in parallel, when you consider that experience.
So it might include all the details, but also like internal sensations, other associations that might be coming through in your mind, whatever those are, and in as much detail as possible. And even if your mind starts to wander away from it, to write that as well, to allow whatever comes through, just trying to get it down on the page. And so then you have a lot of material. And then I ask students to go through and circle parts of what they’ve written that they find particularly striking in terms of the word use, the imagery, or even something artful about what they were able to express without necessarily intending to. Things that they might want to work with and then to bring forward that cut material, and then to try and shape each into a stanza.
So first stanza has to do with material that you’re shaping from the sight of astonishment. Stanza number two: the earliest memory. Third stanza: a moment of self-awareness or self-consciousness.
And usually, when I’ve done this assignment, the poems that people write are incredible because as you’re shaping, you’re looking for ways, you know, how are these different discrete moments going to be in conversation with each other on the page? It’s an interesting experiment.
Inkwell is a great organization that offers writing workshops and mentorship opportunities to people in the community in Toronto, who have lived experience of mental illness and substance use issues. And all of these workshops are led by established or, you know, they say, award winning writers who themselves also have lived experience. I was able to run a few different workshops. I framed most of them on writing exercises tied to specific poems and I would take prompts from those poems.
And then the participants would then write through them. And the vast majority of the prompts were based on situated-ness and the land, the specific land that the individuals may have been situated on. Somewhere in Toronto, maybe their specific neighborhood, the specific streets that they live on, the different structures, houses, shops, buildings, institutions that are around them. And also the different creatures that they might encounter. Writing in conversation, perhaps, or from the perspective of, writing about pigeons and squirrels and raccoons and so on and so forth. Because there are all these places really in the city or throughout the city where you can see the quote unquote natural world or a kind of wildness erupting or disrupting human development and organization. And I thought that that would be an interesting aperture, sort of opening, into a discussion of poetry.
I think it’s important to feel rooted somewhere, to have a starting point and then to use poetry as a tool for exploration and experimentation and interpretation.
Claire Tacon: 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 Liz’s work, including her most recent collection Letters in a Bruised Cosmos. There, you can also listen to outtakes from this episode and check out more teaching and writing tips. Thanks for listening.
In this episode, Liz Howard shares her thoughts on the expansiveness of poetry and how it can be used as a tool for exploration, experimentation and interpretation:
1:22 | How an old copy of Macbeth entrained her ear to the rhythm of language
3:47 | Coming to see her writing as a conversation with the ancestral realm
5:00 | Using enjambment to interrupt anecdotal poems in her first collection Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, inviting the reader to pay closer attention
9:12 | Invoking both Western astrophysical science and cosmology, as well as Indigenous, specifically Anishinaabe, sky knowledge in Letters in a Bruised Cosmos
11:14 | Scavenging and thrifting language to produce a sort of haunting or a kind of echo within the text and how that resonates with her work in cognitive psychology
16:16 | Adapting one of Dionne Brand’s writing exercises in her own classroom, inviting students to consider a sight of astonishment, an earliest memory and a moment of self-awareness
19:11 | Her work at Inkwell and developing prompts from existing poems to explore situated-ness
How Teaching Has Changed Her Reading Practice
Vox Humana by Adebe DeRango-Adem
Fire Cider Rain by Rhiannon Ng Cheng Hin
Making Love With the Land by Joshua Whitehead
A Minor Chorus by Billy-Ray Belcourt
The Art of the Poetic Line by James Longenbach
The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom by Felicia Rose Chavez