CELEBRATING ABORIGINAL HISTORY MONTH 2011: INTERVIEW WITH 2-SPIRIT METIS WRITER SHARRON PROULX-TURNER

Sharron Proulx-Turner is a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta. Originally from the Ottawa river valley, she’s from Mohawk, Algonquin, Wyandot, Ojibwe, Mi’kmaw, French, Scottish and Irish ancestry. She’s a two-spirit mom of three adult children, Graham, Barb and Adrian, mother-in-law to Harold, and nokomis to Willow, Jessinia and Mazie. Her previously published memoir, Where the Rivers Join (1995), written under a pseudonym, was a finalist for the Edna Staebler award for creative non-fiction, and her second book, what the auntys say (2002), was a finalist for the League of Canadian Poets’ Gerald Lampert Prize for best first book of poetry. Sharron’s work appears in several anthologies and journals. She has an upcoming book, she walks for days/ inside a thousand eyes/ (a two-spirit story), with Turnstone, Fall, 2008.

BCP: Why poetry?

SPT: Why poetry? First I’ll say, I don’t think of my self as a poet, but more as a storyteller. My first book, Where the Rivers Join, is a memoir about part of my childhood. That one is written under a pseudonym, Beckylane.

My second book, what the auntys say, is being called a “Canadian long poem.” It’s a story about a Métis lady who’s about four hundred years old and the story is told by old auntys and a middle aged Métis narrator. These are some of the stories of the women in my family — my grandmothers, my mother, my auntys, my daughter, me. These stories are weaved together in short, fragmented lines that reflect and imitate the ways the Métis women in my family have survived — despite tremendous attempts at genocide — since contact.

My fourth book, she walks for days/ inside a thousand eyes/ a two-spirit story, though called poetry, is a story, as the title indicates. It is an historical fiction written in an unconventional way and often the line is used as the breath rather than as punctuation. About twelve lesbian women are brought forward from contact until the indian act and relocations in the States; these women come to life and tell a version of their story to contemporary characters in the novel. I was led to do research in the white man’s way to bring these women’s stories together in a book. To personalize their stories that were told by missionaries, explorers, priests — men. The homophobia embedded in the stories was palpable. I’m really happy with the work done by the publisher on this book. It’s not a book that can be picked up and read like a crime novel or a new york best seller, and they honored the spirit of the story. Much of the book grew out of dreams, as much of my writing does. I honor the grandmothers in that way.

My third book, she is reading her blanket with her hands, is a book a poetry. Each poem is a dedication to a person in my life. After a dear friend of mine passed away, I wanted to let those I loved know how I felt about them while we’re both still alive. These poems were written over an eighteen year period.

I am now working on a manuscript with an Indigenous publisher. That one’s a book of poetry.  It’s called, the trees are still bending south.

I am also working on a book of short stories, two of which are published in Tales from Moccasin Avenue, called, Young Crow-Caw Caught in Calgary and Young Crow-Caw Loses and Eyeball. I’ve also been writing contemporary Roogaroo stories.

I also write Creative Non-Fiction, and I am published in several anthologies and journals.

BCP: What is your process?

SPT: My process? That’s a big question. I’ll be as simple as I can. I love writing. First of all, I didn’t save my writings until after 1990. Before that I wrote, but recycled everything or put them in the garbage. Long story. I started publishing in 1990 at the encouragement of writer, Daphne Marlatt. I tried. I sent out a poem I’d workshopped with her to several journals she recommended and included her name as she suggested. The poem, mean and lazy steps the giant, never did get published until eighteen years later in she is reading her blanket with her hands. But I sent out other writings in 1990 and I was published before the year was out.

My “process” has developed slowly over the years. Because quite a bit of my writing comes from the grandmothers in my dreams, and it is made clear to me what dreams are meant for my writing, I keep a diary. Not that I record my dreams as such, but keeping a diary keeps me fresh. Before I sit down to write at my computer, I smudge and light a candle to honour the grandmothers and grandfathers who help me with my writing. There are times when a poem will come in its whole and I make no changes. There are times when a poem or a paragraph or a story will take literally years. The good news is, I always know when they are done.

I will work from early morning, all day, when I’m on a roll. I don’t often work in the evening. I’m not one of those through-the-night-and-into-the-morning writers. My inspiration for my creative writing comes in dreamtime and peters out around supper time. I have many other obligations (including other writing obligations for anthologies and journals) in my life and there are times when I’m unable to write for whatever book I’m working on because of those obligations, but I wouldn’t say I’m a person who has ever had “writers block.” During the times when I may not be writing creatively at all, I’ll usually be keeping a diary.

All of the titles for my books have come from dreams except the most recent, the trees are still bending south. That one comes from a good friend. We were driving one late spring day. We’d planned to go for a walk, but it was really windy so we decided to take a drive instead. At one point she said, the trees are still bending south. I searched around for a slip of paper so I could write that down and I asked her, can I borrow that for the title of my book? She said, “Sure you can.”

I work on one title at a time and another title comes in a dream. I’m not a fast writer, even when I’m writing for months on end, but I am slow and steady. I spend years on each manuscript. I am an editor for publishers, writers and students, and not only do I edit other people’s writing, but I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite my own work until I feel it’s ready or until I have that dream with another title. Did I say I love writing?

BCP: How long have you been writing poetry?

SPT: That answer’s short and simple. I’ve been writing since grade four when I won a prize for the best poem in the school. I thought I’d cheated because I already had a poem written that I’d worked on for what seemed like forever. But I woke up in the middle of the night the night before the poem was due, wrote out a poem ver batum that came to me in a dream, and handed in that one. I was totally shocked when I won first place in competition I didn’t even enter.

BCP: Who are your influences?

SPT: My biggest influences are Indigenous writers. Still are. Too many to list. Some are Shirley Bear, Maria Campbell, Daniel David Moses, Rita Joe, Basil Johnston, Jeannette Armstrong, Paula Gunn Allen, Lee Maracle, Linda Hogan. Shirley Bear has reached into my bones with her visual art and her voice. Daniel David Moses is a man whose poetry and theatre challenges my every writerly fibre. Lee Maracle has unraveled and created theories of writing that have helped me to find my own voice. Linda Hogan is the author right now that I most admire. To me, her writing is absolutely brilliant. Other influences for me are Luce Irigary, a french feminist writer from france. From her, I learned something intellectual about myself as a writer. I learned my womanness can be expressed in English in an entirely unique way that challenges the white, male norm. And from Susan Sontag I learned the beauty of the mind when the heart is woven in. 

BCP: You mention pencils in some of your poems.  Do you write by hand?

SPT: I do write by hand sometimes. I write in my diary with a soft lead pencil. I started that way because I’m a terrible speller and it just stuck. I love pencil. I love to draw with pencil. I would say that most of my writing is done on computer, but that’s probably not true. I think it just feels that way because of my love of rewrites.

BCP: Your poetry is emotional, honest, and brave. Was it hard to start publishing such revealing work?

SPT: Was it hard? Yes. Still is. But my auntys, my grandmothers tell me it’s my duty, so I do. It’s one way I give back to all my relations, to acknowledge the help I’ve had over the years to help me stay alive. If I can help one Indigenous person, it’s worth it.

BCP: Many artists identify themselves in different ways.  Do you identify as an Aboriginal writer?  Metis writer?  A writer?

SPT: I identify as all three.

BCP: You give thanks to Great Spirit and Mother Earth and you write of medicines throughout your collection.  How much does your spirituality play a part in your writing?

SPT: My spirituality and my writing are not separate. When I write, when I create, I am part way into my spirit self. That’s where I write from. That’s how the grandmothers and grandfathers help.

BCP: One of your poems is called prayersong.  Do you see poetry as a form of prayer?

SPT: Every moment in life is a prayer and myself, I not only see poetry as a form of prayer, but also as a form of resistance. I am of the mind that the artists, the writers, the musicians, those in theatre and entertainment — not only comment on life, but provide a means to change. Louis Riel predicted today’s movement. As Shirley Bear says, “Artists are the movers and changers of the world.”

BCP: When you spoke on a panel at University of Toronto in Winter 2011 you mentioned that you see your writing as stories and not poems.  Can you elaborate?

SPT: I answered this question earlier in the interview.

BCP: At your University of Toronto talk you mentioned how not enough writers of colour, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, are given jobs in the writing field at post secondary institutions.  Do you still see this happening?

SPT: I do. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of us writing and publishing and we still seem to be the tokens in the ivory towers. Here at U of T you are lucky. You have a very strong First Nations House and I was thrilled to see so many brown folks here during this event. That indicates the level of hard work done by writers and educators like Lee Maracle and others. In our communities, nothing is done in isolation. It would be so nice to have this kind of welcome, this kind of event at every college and university, every friendship centre across the country. It will happen. It’s only a matter of time. 

BCP: How do you come up with such amazing and unique titles such as the intimacy of bark growing inside quiet rain?

SPT: Thank you, BCP. Titles like that come to me in quiet moments on the land.

BCP: Your poem anxiety of influence is about violence against women.  You write of Helen Betty Osborne, the 27 Aboriginal women found on Picton’s farm, police inaction and apathy concerning missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Manitoba and other things.  How did this poem come about?  Was it hard to write it?

SPT: This was a poem I began in a creative writing course with author Fred Wah, after the women engineering students were slaughtered in Montreal in 1989. Then came Oka. During the course of the previous year I had gone through the local Calgary papers and clipped articles about violence against women. I was shocked at the volume, at the piles and piles of clippings. I researched white “Greek” patriarchal stories that seemed to birth themselves from a hatred towards women that was systemic and embedded in the institutions of this country. The poem came together from there, and, yes, it was extremely difficult to write.

BCP: What are you working on now?

SPT: As I said earlier, I have a poetry manuscript with a publisher. I guess I was called a poet for so long, I began to be influenced by the mainstream rumors. I also have a book of short stories in progress about a crazy crow who’s friends with a Métis boy and girl. These stories cover some of the history of the Métis from Tadoussac (the original home of the Métis in Canada) to Calgary. I’m also writing contemporary Roogaroo stories. New things are birthing themselves all the time.

BCP: When do you expect to have your fourth collection of poetry published?

SPT: Soon, I hope. Within the next year or two.

BCP: What do you want the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities to get from hearing you read your poems?

SPT: I write for Indigenous audiences and when non-Indigenous folks get something from my work, that’s good too. I hope my words reach people with both beauty and resistance.

BCP: One of your poems is about International Aboriginal Day.  It is Aboriginal History Month now.  What does that mean for you?

SPT: To me, every month is International Aboriginal month! I think you’re talking about a poem dedicated to Shirley Bear called, coffee among the poles of a tipi on national aboriginal day, 2004. Shirley Bear co-facilitated a twelve week residency in Banff, Alberta and I was fortunate enough to be one of the participants for six of those weeks. I am honoured to say this poem is the introduction in Shirley Bear’s book of poetry and thought called, Virgin Bones. Shirley Bear is one of the great thinkers of our time.

BCP: What advice do you have for other writers out there who are having difficulties with their writing, or who have yet to see their work in print, or who are afraid to perform their poetry?

SPT: Keep trying. Keep writing. I have dyslexia and at least one other learning disability. When I first started university, I failed a required writing test and I had to take an English course. I was really scared. On my first essay, the prof wrote, and I quote, “This is no essay but you sure as hell can write.” After several “C’s” I asked the prof how to write an “A” paper. “An essay’s just a formula,” I said. Can you help me learn that formula. The prof said, “Have you thought that maybe you’re just not capable of writing an “A” paper? You write in circles,” that prof said. I thought, hmmm, I think I am capable. I just need to figure out how to write in a straight line. I borrowed a paper from an “A” student in the class. I copied her form, her structure, right down the line, and I got an “A.” 

If you’re afraid to perform your writing in front of an audience, practice reading in front of people you feel safe with, like your family and friends. Read to yourself out loud. Performing with comfort usually takes time. Like anything you want to become good at, it takes time. My knees and hands shook so bad the first time I read out loud, I couldn’t see the paper. A friend of mine, Métis writer Kelly Benning, says before her first reading she told her dad how nervous she was. He said something like, “If standing and reading into a microphone in front of a hundred people is the worst moment of your life, you’ve lived a charmed life, my girl.”

Tune in to Black Coffee Poet Friday June 17, 2011 for a video of Sharron Proulx-Turner reading a story.

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About Black Coffee Poet

Black Coffee Poet is a mixed race poet, essayist, and journalist who focuses on Social Justice, Indigenous Rights, STOPPING Violence Against Women, Film, and Literature.
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One Response to CELEBRATING ABORIGINAL HISTORY MONTH 2011: INTERVIEW WITH 2-SPIRIT METIS WRITER SHARRON PROULX-TURNER

  1. Daniel de Culla says:

    Very Lovely¡

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