Friday, October 26, 2012

A Poetics of Decolonization

An Interview with Tim Lilburn
By Shane Rhodes

The following is a conversation between Shane Rhodes and Tim Lilburn about Lilburn’s recently published, Assiniboia, and Rhodes’ work in progress, X. The conversation took place over a few weeks this summer and was conducted by email.

Shane Rhodes: Assiniboia is built on an argument that the colonization of the land on which we live in Canada is not only a process of the past but an ongoing process that invades and engenders the present of our settler society, our relationship to land, our relationship to First Nations, our relationships to each other, and even our poetics. What you seem to be proposing in Assiniboia (and propose is almost too weak of a word for your insistence) is a different way of thinking about the past, the present, and colonization. What is some of the thinking that made you want to attempt Assiniboia? Why now?

Tim Lilburn: The Harper government is proposing a model of this country that places Western Canada’s resource wealth, especially tar sands oil, at its centre. I, along with many others, am uncomfortable with an understanding of the West that is built entirely on an extractive, and environmentally irresponsible and dangerous, approach to wealth — the snatch it and leave strategy, decamping to England or a gated community on Vancouver Island — the old Hudson Bay Company, Rupert’s Land model, the new big oil model. I would like an alternative way of imagining where I live.

Any search for an alternative Western Canada, in my opinion, has to pass through the political and social vision of Louis Riel and his supporters in the two Provisional Governments at Fort Garry and Batoche. It’s the chief alternative political vision that’s been tried (briefly) under historical conditions. It’s no coincidence that Tom Flanagan of the University of Calgary, an early and crucial Harper advisor, built his career on an attempt to demolish the credibility of Riel. It’s important to remember that Riel’s imaginary society was intended for all people, included all races. His last secretary, Henry Jackson (Honoré Jaxon after his conversion to Riel’s cause) was a diasporic European from the settler community around Prince Albert, U of T grad in classics, left-leaning. Jaxon, along with Sara Riel, the visionary Ursuline nun and Louis Riel’s sister, were my way into imagining the polis of Assiniboia.

There’s something else I was pursuing in the book, and it has to do with the nature of colonial war. Most, maybe all, imperial wars are really mythopoeic wars, one cosmology going into battle with and attempting to vanquish another. There was something deficient in the culture of Europeans when they first came in contact with the land in North America and the original inhabitants of that land: European culture had long ago lost touch with its contemplative root, its own wisdom lineage. This meant that it had little capacity over all to take in and be ravished and shaped by the new place, because it was essentially far from the rapt, persistent attention its own contemplative heritage could have shaped in it. And, because the contemplative spirit is linked to conviviality, there was (and is) little interest in engaging in open conversation with indigenous peoples about the nature of being and different cosmological and ontological accounts. Just read reports of those first exchanges in the Jesuit Relations from the 1630s! Assiniboia tries, in various theatrical ways, to reach toward this restoration of elements of the Western tradition — with no great confidence that anything in this line will be successful. I don’t want to reduce the book to an extended argument, but these were some of the ideas that were clustered around its origin as line after line gathered. For me, there is a large element of play involved in writing poems, but these ideas or concerns roughly set out the limits of this play for this book.

I am quite intrigued by your suggestion that colonialism is still present, of course, and even more interested in your claim that it infects our poetics. What do you have in mind here? Also in an earlier email you mentioned that the project you are working on now tracks some of the same themes Assiniboia does. What is this new project?

SR: The project I am currently completing is called X. Largely using the prescriptive constraints of found poetry (where a poetic text is constructed from previously existing material), much of the poetry in X is built using Government of Canada transcripts of the Canadian Post-Confederation Treaties (also called the numbered treaties), their associated documentation as well as the Indian Act and other First Nations focused federal law and policy. Conducted by the Government of Canada over a fifty-year period, the numbered treaties represent one of the largest systematic, colonial land appropriations in the world. Daunting for the history and future they carry and their impenetrable legal diction, these texts are the foundational logic of the current phase of Canadian colonization and of ongoing settler, First Nations, Inuit and Métis relations.

How does colonization affect our poetics? I am increasingly exasperated by poetry (or, why so specific? art in general) that does not in some way interrogate the modes of its production and the environment and geography from which it comes. I’m not asking for post-colonial or Marxist criticism every time I open a book, but I question poetry that doesn’t in some way look at where it comes from. I also question the preponderance of our poetic allusions whether they be to the great European and Western thinkers or Greek/Roman mythology. Here we are, tens of thousands of miles from the homes of that mythology and philosophy and most of us know more about it than about the mythologies of the geography and land and people where we live. I speak English, Spanish and French and nowhere in my education were Cree, Anishinaabe, Secwepemctsín, Inuktitut, or Michif even presented as options.

I am interested in exploring anti-indigenousness (racism is too general a term for the particular discriminations that have been engineered in Canada) and the ways in which our colonial society builds up and protects the myths at its foundation. How do we hold the idea of living in a just society while also knowing the injustices that exist and continue to exist at our very foundation? How has our thinking — and our thinking even about poetry and what can make poetry — been affected? Beyond just intellectual curiosity, there are reasons why it is easier for us to quote a 500 BC Greek philosopher but say nothing of Deganawidah. And this isn’t just an intellectual argument as I think how colonialism continues to shape our thinking leads directly to our relationship to land and treating land as only a platform for resource extraction.
I am trying to build an uncomfortable poetry that looks uncomfortably at these questions. This is the reason why I’m interested in Assiniboia and your thinking behind it. Beyond the mythopoetic structures you mention, how did your thinking about colonization effect the writing of Assiniboia and your use of language?

TL: The presence of indigenous culture and language in settler literature that you hope for has existed previously in less than satisfactory ways. This sort of borrowing or fusion wasn’t uncommon a generation back — you can see it in the work of Andrew Suknaski, say, or John Newlove or Robert Kroetsch. And there’s another version of it a generation before that in the poetry of Duncan Campbell Scott.

As much as I admire and have been influenced by Suknaski as a writer and even more as a person who inserted himself into the land, I do feel somewhat uneasy about his particular use of Aboriginal materials. There is not enough in the poem (or the poet and his culture) to support these presences. With Scott, the move feels like a gathering of artifacts for museums in Europe and major cities in the East, the thought of “a … waning race” (as he put it) stored or displayed. So maybe we need a new way.

Assiniboia is about finding a route into Riel’s political and linguistic vision, itself a fusion of the European and indigenous North American practices. It isn’t about Riel’s polis, but is a settler response to and a working toward this broad imaginary state. And I realized along the way that cultural Europeans would have to shed certain things and add others, mostly facets of the West’s mystical root — thus speeches from Odysseus, Plato, Suhrawardi (and others which I took out to control the spread of the book) — to complete the journey from one cultural cosmos to another. But I didn’t start from some grand, overall idea; I just kept adding phrase to phrase and over time it became clear that there were various distinct voices — Dionysos, Sara Riel, forms on the land like the Cabri effigy — that were talking to one another; figures or forces that mainstream culture had forgotten, interred in silence, were now in conversation. I also was operating no doubt under the influence of Louise Halfe’s work, Blue Marrow and The Crooked Good in particular, and from talking with her over the years, and by the projects of writers like Jan Zwicky and Xi Chuan, who, too, are trying to open up new ways into their social worlds.

Why isn’t there more of this, a move toward land awareness in writing and deeper versions of cultural exchange? Well, there is the belief that the problems or complaints that would urge this — that settler descendants aren’t rooted here or their literature doesn’t echo the indigenous sense of place (your formulation more or less) — are simply forms of hypochondria. This seems to be the view of Michael Lista in his review of Assiniboia, as far as I can make it out — that the feeling of disconnection or unease or unfinished business, which I and I think others feel, is just made up or imagined. Then there is the neo-conservative amnesia around colonialism and the “free-land” source of the country’s wealth.

I think your question “How do we hold the idea of justice in our heads knowing the injustices that exist at our very foundation?” is a fine one. Not doing the work of drawing out the foundational injustices from the prescribed amnesia and pulling them into critical and poetic light, surely part of the work of decolonization, undermines the entire moral edifice in a surprisingly extensive way. One last thing — are we really that far from the myths and philosophies (Greek, Enlightenment) you would like to see more understated in poetry? They are us.

SR: My concern is much more about why our culture values certain histories and histories of thought above others and this valuation, I think, is intricately tied up with our culture’s will to colonize (and the attendant racism and anti-indigenousness that fuels it) and control. Rather than arguing the intellectual merits of these myths and philosophies, I question why we attach such merit to them and, as a result, what receives little merit at all.

I’m interested in the ideas of time and order with which Assiniboia plays. Other than the poem by poem progression in the poems’ dramaturgical structure, there is very little here in terms of clear, sequential narrative. Time and sentence structure also become compacted, twisted and shuffled. This is a space where “everything has franchise” and where poetry wanders. Creating this space must have been no small feat of waylaying the need to order and make clear. Why wander?

TL: The poems do move around, slipping back and forth in time and from place to place (the confluence of the South Saskatchewan and Red Deer rivers, Vancouver Island, Batoche), sometimes in myth, sometimes in history, sometimes in the apparent present. This is because the book wants to take in the whole terrain, the temporal and spatial terrain of Western Canada, old Rupert’s Land, over the last hundred or so years. Partly it’s an appetite for spectacle, an operatic inflation, that gives the collection this spreading shape, but more than this, it is the desire to think into the roots of settlement and land theft. (Did the Hudson Bay Company actually own Rupert’s Land, rather than simply hold a monopoly to trade in various watersheds? Ownership is minimally premised on use and, aside from trading posts and surrounding fields, all the land was used by First Nations people, who were never wards or employees or representatives of the company. The 1869 sale to Canada may have been closer to your local Tim Hortons franchise selling your neighbourhood to China or the State of Washington than we care to think. Imagine the franchise provider as the Queen of Ruritania or a slightly more substantial polity)

But really the poems’ nomadism is only a surface trait, and at a deeper level they are fixed in the present; political history, the aspirations of the dead, age-long philosophical conundra — all these are active and more or less simultaneous in the book, as they are in ordinary consciousness. This is the nature of thought, if you consider, as many daily do, the colonization of the continent. If you move from this multi-ply consciousness, you are mired in ideology or in sentimentality. Where does the complex phenomenon of conquest, and the entrepreneurial shadiness that came with this, with its history and its continuing personal, economic and political effects, live? It certainly doesn’t live in a clearly unfolding narrative unless you are content with a cartoon of it.

SR: The shifting narrative and time of the poem also has an important connection to doubt. From my research behind the creation of the Post-Confederation Treaties, the Indian Act and related government policy, one thing stands out: the erosion of doubt. It seems that the more sure any government and government official was of what they were doing in terms of “Indian policy,” the more disastrous the results. When you take a look at how the relationships between settlers and First Nations have changed in Canada over three hundred years, one of the key changes on the part of the settlers has been the loss of doubt — moving from immigrants who didn’t know what they were doing in this new world (and, therefore, needed to build and maintain good relationships with the people who already lived here) to immigrants who now feel their mastery of this place is absolute. This loss of doubt (and a mounting sense of dominance and superiority) changed what could be seen (at least at the best of times) as relationships of nation to nation to a relationship of administration. Read the Indian Act — it is hard to imagine a more hubristic law — and its attempt to control a people all the way down to the minute details of the dances they can dance (btw, Gary Thomas Morse’s Discovery Passages is an excellent refutation of the Indian Act’s “potlatch ban”). Read about the formation of the Indian residential schools. Read the Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy (the 1969 non-ironically titled White Paper on Indians). Read what is happening right now. This is the thinking of a society and its governments that feel they have the answers and have few doubts about what is right for “other” people — the rest is implementation and administration.

TL: I agree with what you say about “the erosion of doubt,” and the building of a terrible certainty that is in conversation with nothing. It yields to nothing because it imagines it is simply common sense. It therefore presents a slippery, seemingly unbudgeable obstacle to even minute attempts at de-colonization on the settler side. Colonization and its effects over time appear to be just a fact like glaciation. One needn’t be in exchange about things like this; the give and take of genuine conversation, that courtesy, is inappropriate when the subject is, say, the temperatures at which certain liquids turn to ice or gas. Against the background of the “certainties” you describe, and their attendant amnesias, what you are doing in X and what I attempt in Assiniboia is just playing with illusion.


Tim Lilburn’s most recent book is Assiniboia. He teaches at the University of Victoria.

Shane Rhodes is the author of The Wireless Room, Holding Pattern, The Bindery, and, most recently, Err. His poetry has won an Alberta Book Award, two Lampman Awards, the P. K. Page Founder’s Award for Poetry, and a National Magazine Award. He is the poetry editor for Arc.

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