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The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm

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Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm

This spring, Toronto high-school students from two Writer's Craft classes conducted interviews with some of Canada's finest poets. The interviews will be posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book in June and July 2011.

Claire Wiles:

Hello,

I am a grade 12 student in the Writers Craft course at Malvern CI. I am very interested in hearing your responses, so thank you very much for taking the time to respond.

Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm:

Hi Claire,

Thanks for your questions. My answers appear below.

Please feel free to contact me for clarification or to ask follow up questions. I’ll do my best to respond.

Cheers,
Kateri

CW:

From my research, I see that you enjoy reading aloud your poems. Do you feel that the way your work or poems are interpreted differ when they are read aloud versus read independently? For example, do you notice a stronger connection to listeners (or vise versa) when your work or poems are read aloud?

KAD:

It’s not so much that i feel the interpretations will be interpreted differently, although i suppose that is possible, it’s that i believe the audience’s experience of the poems is different. When the poems, or stories, are read aloud it creates a series of relationships between the writer/performer — audience — text/words. As a performer, the poet has a different role and responsibility as does the audience.

Also, i believe that when we give words breath, we enact something tangible that was once abstract. We ‘create’ and ‘share’ in a more direct way through the act of speaking and listening. We share breath. Certain barriers tumble down. The concrete-ness of the words on the page become something with, if you will, "Manitou" or spirit or perhaps we experience or glimpse its quiddity. There is a spiritual element, i believe, that can become part of this communal experience.

CW:

Do you feel that your work is compared to older poet’s works, or “canonical poets”? If so does this encourage you to be unique with your own style, or do you follow tradition and are influenced by older poets?

KAD:

I’m not sure if my work is compared to older poet’s works or canonical works. I never really think about it nor can i recall any such comparisons. I write how i write to express what it is i wish to say and in a way that brings to bear the full extent of my knowledge and/or understanding. I’m not so much influenced by mainstream or what most would consider ‘canonical’ poetry, although of course, i am not completely unaware of it nor could i claim to be completely unaffected by it. (I do have my MA in English Lit, after all, so i did study the "canon" as defined by mainstream academia at the time.) I am influenced by the Indigenous, and more specifically Anishnaabe "literary" canon — songs, speeches, oratory, poems, stories, prayers, invocations and so on. That is the tradition out of which my work springs forth.

CW:

Like many other poets that I have looked into, your poems are written in a unique style/format. For example, your poem “Fishing Lines” takes a unique form. In “Fishing Lines”, the poem does not follow a linear pattern, but rather takes an abstract shape in the layout of the text. Why is that done? Do you feel that the creative shape that is given to some of your poems changes their meaning?

KAD:

It can change the meaning in a similar way to how punctuation can change meaning. For example, saying:

“they are proud women” is much different than “they are proud, women”

What the line endings and spacing and shape on the page can also do is to create relationships between words in a way that punctuation cannot. For example, i have a poem in my collection, "my heart is a stray bullet," about my two grandmothers. The way it is laid out allows readers to read it as two distinct poems or as one. I did this because i was suggesting something about my relationship to them and them to me and them to each other because of me.

So there are many possibilities for playing with and layering meaning and words and relationships through formatting and placement of words on the page. This is something that can’t always be done through performance of the same words. So, in that way, there are some poems that i write that are meant to be read on the page and some that are meant to be read aloud or heard and then there are many that work either or both ways but can be slightly or wildly different as a result.

CW:

After reading your poem “Rainstorm in Volcano,” it seemed ironic to me. Because the subject matter revolves around the rain, which is usually evokes a depressing mood or topic, it was odd that this poem still evoked a feeling of energy and happiness (for me, personally). Was this intentional that you wanted to contrast two clashing subjects, or were you unaware that readers may feel this?

KAD:

Interesting. I don’t necessarily think of rain as depressing at all. Perhaps this is an area of cultural difference. I think of it, generally, as life-giving and cleansing and beautiful. Also, i don’t think of rain as one "thing" — there are so many different kinds of rain. I guess one could say i was trying to express my experience and understanding of rain and in particular the rain in a specific place (on the Big Island of Hawai’i in the Volcanoes Park). I was attempting to describe something about rain and also about volcanoes that would also speak to the reader/audience about creativity and what i would call "procreativity." It isn’t simply a poem about rain. On one visit to the park I’d seen lava flowing into the sea. Powerful! This is how land is created. That poem series was the result of that visit.

CW:

Do you feel that by living in a small town (Cape Croker Reserve on the Saugeen Peninsula) your opportunities and inspirations are limited? If so how do you find inspiration?

KAD:

Not at all! My access to certain things can be limited (i’m still on dial-up when i’m there, for instance) but it’s the place i find most inspiring in the world. I find my inspiration in the land and people and culture that are part of me. I don’t really have to look for inspiration — it surrounds me. I consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to live in my homeland, surrounded by family and community, on land where many of my ancestors lived and where their bones have become part of the earth.

CW:

How has your writing style changed from the past to what you are currently working on? If so, what has influenced this change (if it is something that you are aware of).

KAD:

That’s a difficult one. I’m not sure how it has changed. Perhaps what i write about has changed a little though i’m not even sure about that. So many things influence my writing that it’s difficult to pinpoint a few. What i can say is that the simple experience of life, of growing older, of experiencing new things and meeting new people and seeing new places, must change and influence not only who i am but what i write about and how. (Though in many ways i’m still the same kid i always was — after all, our brains are basically "hardwired" at a young age.)

I’ll think more about this. Let me know if you have more questions around this or any that are more specific.

CW:

I notice that you have participated in a lot of “work-shopping” your work, as well as working with others. For example, when you taught creative writing at a British Columbia university in the late '90s. Do you feel that when you teach others you are being taught just as much as those who you are teaching? This could be through others interpretations etc.

KAD:

When i work with emerging writers, i do sometimes learn a great deal from the experience, definitely. This isn’t always the case, however. At times, it’s not so much that i learn something as that i’m inspired by the discussions and work we do together. Sometimes, it’s also the opposite. It actually saps my inspiration and prevents me from writing.

I hope that answers your question — i’m not sure if you were looking for something else here?

CW:

Thank you very much,
Claire


Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm: I am a writer, publisher, poet, editor, activist and Indigenous arts advocate from the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation at Neyaashiinigmiing on the Saugeen Peninsula in Ontario. I have released a collection of poetry, my heart is a stray bullet, a chapbook, bloodriver woman, and two acclaimed poetry and music cds, standing ground, and the soundtrack from A Constellation of Bones. The performance piece, A Constellation of Bones was done in collaboration with acclaimed choreographer Santee Smith and Maori hip hop artist and producer Te Kupu. The soundtrack, featuring my lyrics and vocals with music and background vocals by Te Kupu was nominated for a 2008 Canadian Aboriginal Music Award. My literary work has been published internationally in journals, anthologies and magazines in Italy, Canada, the USA, Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Germany and Ireland. I have edited two groundbreaking anthologies Without Reservation: Indigenous Erotica and the award winning skins: contemporary Indigenous writing, as well as a special issue of Rampike magazine featuring the work of Indigenous writers and artists.

I have performed and lectured across India, Italy, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Canada, England, the USA and Australia. I was also the librettist for two classical choral music compositions by composer Timothy Sullivan. “birdsongs” was performed by the Penthelia Singers on February 8, 2009 in Toronto. “Between Earth and Sky” was commissioned by The Belle Arte Singers and premiered in Toronto on October 18, 2003.

My poetry was featured on the premiere season of the series Heart of a Poet which aired on Bravo!, The Learning Channel, and BookTV. I was also featured in the documentary “Words from the Edge,” which was filmed on tour in Italy by a film crew from Spain. I was on faculty for the Aboriginal Emerging Writers Program at the Banff Centre in 2010 and will be returning for the 2011 program. I am currently completing work on two manuscripts of short stories, among other projects.


Born and raised having no athletic ability, musical talent and being a few cards short of a deck, Claire is what one could call…average. Having lived in the same house all her life raised by her parents who coincidently share the same name, Claire dreams of shortly leaving the tight quarters of her house. Claire’s love for Silence of the Lambs and Criminal Minds has brought her to study at the University of Guelph, where she will study Psychology in the fall of 2011.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft

Each year, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer’s Craft class interview Canadian poets as part of a class project. The students study Canadian poetry under the collaborative tutelage of teacher John Ouzas and poet a.rawlings. We are delighted to feature the interviews on Open Book.

Go to The Great Canadian Writer's Craft’s Author Page