Gwen Benaway

Gwen Benaway is a Two-Spirited trans poet of Anishinaabe and Métis descent. She is the author of two poetry collections—Ceremonies for the Dead (2013) and Passage (2016), both published by Kegedonce Press—and was a 2016 recipient of the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT Emerging Writers Honour of Distinction from the Writers’ Trust of Canada. As 2017 came to a close, Benaway talked with me about poetry, Passage, and the bodily affects she sees in Indigenous poetics.

Photo by Michael Elliot

Photo by Michael Elliot

Jason Purcell: What calls you to poetry?

Gwen Benaway: For me, poetry is the most immediate and powerful expression of language. It takes everyday language and condenses it into these small acts of beauty and forces you to engage with it instantly. A good poem works very quickly and powerfully and stays with you for a long time, but it’s something that you don’t necessarily spend a lot of time reading. There’s an immediacy and intensity to poetry that I don’t think happens in other types of writing. I’m really drawn to that immediacy and intensity of form I find in poetry.

JP: Do you remember the first encounter with poetry to resonate with you?

GB: I probably started with Shakespeare’s sonnets in school, and, truthfully, probably the Psalms in the Bible, and somehow kept reading it and bridging from that. I think I’m always drawn to queer poets and queer confessional writing, people like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara, the people writing in that Beat Generation. And obviously Indigenous poetics, people like Katherena Vermette.

But I think poetry really comes from conversation, so I think my first introduction to poetry was just storytelling, just listening to my gookum, listening to my aunts and family members talk and tell stories. I have always come to poetry to try to replicate those conversations, to try to mirror the way that language happens in our everyday lives. I think when we talk to someone, especially when they are important conversations or there is something we are trying to say, we often make little speech poems and use language in a very complicated way. For me, my instinct when looking at poetry is not necessarily to look at individual poets but really look at the way that language flows around me in my life and the conversations that happen with people. It’s been my policy or framework towards coming to poetry. I find it a more sincere form of poetics.

JP: And what about your introduction to writing poetry?

GB: I started writing poetry when I was thirteen or fourteen. I won a Remembrance Day poetry contest in grade 8 and that was through the local Legion. That was how I started, and then I just kept going. I never really stopped. I wasn’t published until I was twenty-three. My first major publication was Prairie Fire, and then from there I kept getting published in small places, and then I had a book, and then I kept going from there. It doesn’t really matter when you start or how you start. It’s your daily practice and that’s what drives your poetics forward. It’s your daily practice that is going to sustain you throughout your poetic career.

JP: What is your writing practice like?

GB: I read poetry every day. I’m addicted to the Poetry Foundation website. I read it all the time. And obviously literary magazines and any poet that I love, I track down their books, so I always read poetry. I write every day. Some days it’s me writing twenty lines in between meetings or emails, sometimes it’s me writing five or six poems. I always write every day in some form or fashion. I also think about how I use language when I’m talking to people or writing text messages or using Messenger. Every time you engage language, you’re using the same skills and functions. All of that informs your poetic practice. Your poetic practice isn’t just confined to you writing. It happens everywhere you use language.

JP: Your work has been edited by some incredible writers, including Daniel Heath Justice and Katherena Vermette. What is the experience of working with an editor like for you? What surprises you? What delights you?

GB: I love collaboration. I think it’s very enriching to have other people look at your work because they see things from their experiences that you aren’t going to see or don’t have access to. Working with Katherna Vermette was probably the most foundational editorial experience I’ve had because she is the first person who I think really sincerely engaged with my work and said to me, “This is what you’re doing, this is what I see in your work.” Just the act of someone looking and seeing your work and identifying it and witnessing it empowers you to create and develop and trust that you’re actually a poet. I’ve also been working with Canisia Lubrin on my third book, Holy Wild, and that’s been wonderful too because she comes from a completely different poetic tradition than I do. It’s been very enriching. She has pushed me out into waters I wouldn’t have gone on my own and often emails me random poems saying, “This is what I think your work is like.” That process of collaboration is always really rich.

JP: Can you tell me about the genesis of Passage?

GB: I broke up with my long-term partner of five years and I hadn’t been writing much when we were together. I’d published my first book while we were together but I kind of stopped writing after that. When we broke up, I started writing again. Out of those initial break-up poems and writing grew Passage, and then as I was writing Passage I started my transition, so the collection is this kind of bridge between two lives, one in one body and one in another. Two different names. Two different people, really. Passage became this actual passage of who I was as a person. You can see this in the book. There’s a shift not only in how the narrator identifies, but also in the form and structure of the language and what’s being talked about. Passage was this work of finding myself, or moving myself from one point to another and pulling all those threads together.

JP: Passage is a collection that is interested in the embodied relationships Indigenous women have with ancestral land. The collection is broken up into sections, each one named after one of the Great Lakes. Can you tell me what it meant to put that unique relationship between place and history into writing?

GB: That’s all there. That’s definitely what the work is about. I think, in a way, I’m making a complicated argument for a kind of body and gender sovereignty that’s rooted in land and ancestry, an inherent sovereignty around gender and body and connecting it to the land in a very real way. That’s what I’m writing about, but it happens because it’s just a part of who I am. Not that there isn’t consciousness around it, not that I don’t think about those things and they aren’t things that I reflect upon and things that I’ve been taught, but for me in the writing process and creating the work, it just extends outward. It just comes from what’s inside. It’s my instinct. One of the things I like about my poetics—and maybe it’s wrong to like things about your poetry—is that it’s always rooted in land, that it’s always rooted in the body, and that my imagery and my language always comes back to the actual land that I come from and reflects that constantly. That’s a distinctive element of Indigenous poetics. People always have this fight about what Indigenous poetics is and what it means, but there is this central relationship of land that comes through Indigenous poetics and that’s present in my work. It isn’t something I think about, it’s just there. I see that in other Indigenous poets as well.

JP: Something I love about Passage is the way in which you stand in a space of vulnerability: you write about being a trans Two-Spirited Anishinaabe and Métis woman in a way that I think attends to the pain and difficulty but also to the beauty and joy of it. I think of your poem “Trans” in the last section of the collection, where you write: “nothing is more beautiful/than a woman who knows/exactly what she wants/and what I want/is myself.” Not only does this collection grapple with the trauma and violence faced by Indigenous women, but there is a celebration of love, desire—particularly trans femme desire—and survival. Though different, I was thinking a lot about Billy-Ray Belcourt’s collection This Wound is a World while re-reading Passage. Can you talk about the importance of writing about your personal experiences of love, sex, desire, and survival?

GB: I’m a confessional poet and I’m a feminist poet, so I’m very much concerned with the intimate and the body and the sexual. I think that comes from queer poetics as well. I think, for me, the importance of writing about those topics is that the violence and oppression of colonization lives in our bodies and lives in our relationships to other people. It’s through our relationships to other people and the land and the world around us that that violence manifests. We can talk about the big overarching reasons why colonization happened and the ways that it destroys people with legislation, etc. But ultimately, the violence is contained and expressed in the intimate, in the relational bond. Same with transphobia. We can talk about how society presents trans women, how it desexualizes us while fetishizing us, all of those pieces, but the violence of that happens at the individual level. It’s between bodies. It’s between two bodies that violence of both transphobia and colonization is expressed and lives. That’s where I experience oppression: in the intimate space. Obviously there’s systemic and institutional oppression, but the thing that hurts the most is the intimate violence. I focus on the intimate violence, and to do that you have to get close to the body and get into sex. The most painful moments in my transition—I guess in my life—happen with my intimate sexual partners because you’re so vulnerable and all of a sudden you have to deal with the weight of 400 years of colonization, 400 years of transphobia, in this intimate space with someone you love who is saying and doing things that hurt you profoundly, and destroy you, deconstruct you as a woman, as an Indigenous woman. The only way, I think, to repair that or to respond to it is through that intimate space as well, and so we have to return to the moment of violence and deconstruct it, animate it, hold it up, question it, and turn it back on itself. That has to come through the body, through an opening up of that space.

I try to use my writing to show that relational complexity, how violence happens on the relational level, and then problematize it. I hope that by holding it up, by showing it, that it is both visible to those who experience it in similar ways as I do and see themselves in that moment so they recognize it’s not just happening to them—that it’s a collective pain—and also that those who are causing it and doing it see themselves in that moment and understand, hopefully, their implication in that. Not that that works, but that’s what I try to do. I think, in his own way, Billy-Ray Belcourt is trying to do the same thing, showing the same kinds of intimate violence and damage and trauma in the moment between bodies. There are a lot of very complicated things going on, I’m not going to simplify his work, but I think it’s part of his poetic instinct. Partly he gets that from me, because he read Passage. It’s a lineage. It’s Katherena Vermette who started with the micro-intimate storytelling in Indigenous poetics and I picked that up from her, then other queer Indigenous poets picked that up from me, which is really from her and the people who taught her. There’s a line that’s happening in creating space for that. Indigenous poetics didn’t really talk about anal sex and hookups and fucking white boys while their girlfriends were in the trailers until it was people like me and Billy-Ray Belcourt and Joshua Whitehead and Lindsay Nixon. That’s new ground for Indigenous poetics. Queer and confessional poetics have been doing that for a long time, but Indigenous poetics haven’t stepped into that space yet, but they’re starting to. You can see that influence of queer poetics moving in to Indigenous poetics. There’s a conversation happening. My place in that is the middle generation, and I see Belcourt and Whitehead as the next generation.

JP: I’d like to shift gears a little. You’ve talked about Canadian Literature and it’s branded moniker CanLit as an ideological project that is invested in, as you’ve said, “creating Canadianness, … multiculturalism, … diversity, … Canadian markers, and nationalism” in the Rusty Toque. I love your take on CanLit that you shared on carte blanche, that diverse writers don’t need to play by CanLit’s rules, and as you say, that diverse writers have already surpassed the limitations of CanLit. What would you say to emerging writers who don’t see themselves represented in this establishment of CanLit?

GB: Indigenous communities—I’ve seen this in my own family and community—have a long tradition of using tools that have been used to oppress us or harm us for our own benefit and good. We take things that have been violent or are not ours and make them work for us in ways that let us find liberation and freedom and that reflect who we are, our culture and ways of doing things, but we’re using their tools to do it. We’re adaptive in times of crisis, trauma and violence. I see that in other marginalized communities as well. I don’t think that’s unique to us.

I think we have to use CanLit in the ways that are good for us, that are meaningful, and in deliberate ways take what CanLit offers and exploit it for the creation and betterment of ourselves and our communities. I think we can do that. But I think what we need to be careful of is that we don’t drink their Kool-Aid, that we don’t get infected by their nationalism and their nation-state and recognize that they are inherently our enemy. If they bless us, if they give us awards, if they celebrate us, it comes at a price that we have to pay. For emerging writers, be mindful of who you serve, who you’re responsible to, your community, who are the people in your life, what in yourself is your value, how does that reflect where you come from? Take that and bring that into your writing, into the worlds you create and the stories you tell. If you have that responsibility, if you see yourself as a responsible witness, as a responsible advocate and link that to where you come from, that will protect you from the worst of CanLit. I think that will enable you to perform that kind of transformation we need to perform in order to have our own survivance and our own communities of writing and creation which are separate from CanLit. This allows us to be inside their spaces but not be consumed by them. I think it’s an internal work, it’s not something you necessary are doing externally. It’s not about who you retweet. It’s about your own internal relationship to your responsibilities and accountabilities and the values you hold as a person and a writer that you bring with you into CanLit.

JP: I see so much of this resistance happening on social media, and I noticed that you participate in so many of the important conversations I see circulating about CanLit and Indigenous writing today. Do you think social media has a role in unsettling the literary establishment of CanLit?

GB: I think it absolutely does. I think it’s powerful. I think it’s very effective. All the hot takes that have been travelling around about CanLit lately are denigrating Twitter and social media as a rabble of insane people, but actually what it is is community-building and community speaking, dialogue and narrative. It’s very powerful. It allows us to question and challenge and hold people accountable in ways that have never happened before. When Jon Kay writes a racist op-ed like he did very recently, there’s a whole bunch of smart people talking about it and deconstructing it. That kind of active intelligence and challenge to CanLit has never been seen before. It’s also enabling us to build a collective community space that has never existed. Through social media, I think what we’re seeing is a live kind of intelligence and strength and a new form of community-building that’s very powerful for marginalized communities, that’s actually transformative for our histories and our ways of being in the world.

JP: What types of communities have you built through social media?

GB: I really love Native Twitter. There’s this inter-nation, interdisciplinary, intercommunity conversation that happens on Native Twitter that’s wonderful. I love jumping into it. It makes me both more aware of things I wouldn’t know otherwise, but it also lets me have this special kind of conversation. There are moments when I can just talk to other Native people online. I can be in a conversation on Twitter that’s just Native voices. That almost never happens in my life. It’s an opportunity to be selective in the kinds of conversations we’re having. Trans girl community is often social media–based because we’re spread out and isolated from each other and also have anxiety and mood disorders, so all of our interactions are digital. I interact with trans women all across the country and in that there is a kind of community-building and narrative.

But most importantly, I think what social media does is it offers a way to have conversations and dialogue that you have more control about than you usually do in everyday life. When you’re at a conference or you’re on a panel or at a writing event, any idiot can stand up and say whatever, or people can keep talking at you, or people can say horrible racist things that you have to sit and listen to. On social media, if you say a horrible racist thing to me, I don’t ever have to talk to you ever again. I can block you. I can make you disappear. There’s a kind of freedom and safety in these social media spaces that doesn’t happen anywhere else. I have a very sexualized Instagram in part because I can block people who are creepy and send me dick pics. I can’t do that in real life.