Nicole Tanguay is a Two-Spirit woman of Cree and French descent. She has been writing poetry for over twenty years and has been published in many anthologies from Connie Fife’s Colour of Resistance to Miscegenation Blues. Nicole’s work speaks of racism and the destruction of the earth. Nicole is also a musician, playwright, and political activist. Nicole works at Native Women’s Resource Center as the interim advocacy co-ordinator.
BCP: What nation are you?
NT: I am of Cree and French descent. Both sides of my family are originally from Quebec. I don’t know much history about my dad’s side so I am not sure if there are other nations as well.
BCP: Why poetry?
NT: Why not poetry? I didn’t choose it, poetry chose me. I do like the genre as it is a great form of communication. A few words can bring about the same image as, say, a chapter in a book. I used to wish that I could have written poetry instead of the 20 page essays I was forced to write at University of Toronto’s English program.
BCP: What is your writing process?
NT: I write when I need to write, and I tend not to have a choice when I am to write. I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and write a piece, or I will be walking down the street and end up composing a piece in my head. I tend to see the words in my head way before I write them down. Sometimes it can take weeks or months before I can get on to paper.
BCP: How long have you been writing poetry?
NT: I wrote my first poem when I was 22 years old. I had never written poetry when I was a child, mostly because I had problems reading, but also because I was told I could not write by my English teachers. Poetry and reading were seen as luxuries as there was always chores to be done, or something more important. Reading was seen as something you did when everything else that needed to be done was done.
BCP: Who are your influences?
NT: Chrystos, Beth Brant Lillian Allen, Clifton Joseph, Jeannette Armstong. Mostly stuff that has soul, speaks to the heart and to the people. Mostly I would have to say that every day people are my influence, their conversations, and their insights into how we live in the world.
BCP: Your poetry is raw, challenging, and in your face. What do you try to convey to your readers?
NT: I always have in mind to educate others. To educate on issues that maybe people need to be reminded about, like racism, or even the Catholic church and how there are aspects of corruption within its leadership.
BCP: Does your spirituality play a part in your writing?
NT: I have never thought about that, but if I was to think about it, I would say probably because like I said earlier, I don’t choose to write. I am almost forced to write. I have always believed that it is a spirit that takes over me and writes some of the pieces I have written. Some of the pieces that I write are complete when they are transformed on to the page. In those moments I do believe that it was a spirit that was writing through me.
BCP: Do you see poetry as a form of resistance?
NT: Absolutely, in fact I think of political poets as being ink warriors. My weapon is my pen and it can be more productive for me to write a piece that speaks to the issue than to take to the streets at times. Though there are times when one needs to put down the pen and take it to the streets.
BCP: Lots of your poems deal with violence against women and colonization. Why do you write about these issues?
NT: If I didn’t write about these issues then I would not be true to my spirit. I cannot as a writer not write about the issue of violence, it is all around us. It affects us every day in different ways. My writing is about life and what I see happen around me. I would be just another mainstream writer, writing about flowers, the blueness of the sky, or what I ate for breakfast. For some that is what they need to write about. I need to write about issues that rip out my heart, issues that have made my soul bleed, issues that are real.
BCP: Artists identify in different ways. Do you identify as an Indigenous writer? Two-Spirit writer? Writer? Or, in some other way? Why do you identify the way you do?
NT: I have always identified as a mixed race Aboriginal Two-Spirit writer. Why? Because I don’t think that you can take away your identity when you write or even separate it. Your life experience no matter how hard we try tends to come out, even if it is unconscious. I don’t believe though that because you come from a certain cultural background that you have to write about things from that culture. I tend not to write about what others would think is Aboriginal writing, like about how majestic trees are, though I may include their magnificence in a poem, I tend not to focus just on the tree, but generally what is happening to that tree; like being clear-cut. Or who is cutting the tree down and its social/ecological ramifications of cutting down that tree.
BCP: It is Aboriginal History Month now. What does that mean to you?
NT: Wahoo, a whole month of celebrations of culture that gets ignored 11 other months of the year.
BCP: What are you working on now?
NT: I am working on more poetry as well as a couple of plays. One of the plays is about George Bush and what happens when he falls into a river.
BCP: When do you expect to have your own collection of poetry published?
NT: I hope to have a collection of my own work ready for publication in the next year.
BCP: What do you want the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities to get from hearing you read your poems?
NT: I want people to be able to hear the voice of the person or issue I am writing about. They are able to see what I see.
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?
NT: Don’t worry who your audience is, just keep writing. I have a tee-shirt that says the secret of writing is writing. Keep writing, and when you think you can’t write any more…write some more.
A spiritual person, Robbie is a singer and songwriter who was recently featured in a Hip-Hop song, “Come Home”, which received airplay. His involvement in the project also got him a bit of media attention in other forms, such as two 30 minute long radio features.
BCP: What nation are you?
RM: I’m Cree and originally from northern Alberta.
BCP: Why music?
RM: Singing just came out of me very naturally. I’ve always done it; ever since I was first able to speak. If you asked my parents, or any of my siblings, they’d tell you I was singing and performing for them at 2 years old. Not a day has passed since where I haven’t sung. It’s always been very therapeutic and healing for me. I can’t thank Creator enough for having given me this talent.
BCP: What is your song writing process?
RM: Well, up until recently, my songs always started out as words on paper, starting with the chorus, and then I would write the verses. So basically, it’s a poem before I find a way to sing it, or before there’s any instrumentation involved. And since I’ve never played an instrument, I come up with the melody in my head and then get a musician to translate the pattern to an instrument, usually the guitar. But lately I’m experimenting with writing lyrics to tracks that already exist, and that were written by other composers.
BCP: How long have you been writing songs?
RM: The very first ones were at age 16.
BCP: Who are your influences?
RM: Marie Osmond was the first star I noticed when I was 3. The Donny & Marie Show would come on television and I would freak right out, running, screaming, and spinning around with joy. I was hysterical for her. But at age 7 or 8, one of my older sisters put me on to Belinda Carlisle and she’s been my favorite singer ever since. I’m also a big fan of Stevie Nicks.
BCP: Your songs are emotional, honest, and challenging. Liquid Courage is about partner abuse in the gay community. Why did you write Liquid Courage? What do you try to convey to your audience?
RM: Liquid Courage is a song I wrote about my experience with a guy who was in serious pursuit of me, and with whom I would have absolutely loved to be with, but couldn’t because of his alcoholism. He was drunk one night and punched me hard in the face while we were arguing, and the gesture ruined everything. We didn’t recover from it, and I walked away. I did talk to some friends about it but noticed I was too bereft of any emotion for it to be healthy for me. So, I wrote a song about it, and in doing so, was able to connect with those inner feelings I had to connect with so the healing process could start for me. To be honest, I’m not exactly passed it yet. I still think of him often, and I feel we both lost out on something that could have been great.
BCP: You are very proud of Two-Spirit history and being Two-Spirit. Does your spirituality play a part in your writing?
RM: It absolutely does, in the sense I’m always writing about relationships, and about my feelings therein, and of course, feelings are a matter of the spirit. I could tell anyone right now I have such and such a feeling, and they would take me at my word and wouldn’t doubt it, even though we don’t see feelings. Therefore, feelings are spiritual, and in turn, so is my songwriting.
BCP: Do you see song as a form of prayer?
RM: Of course I do. I often isolate myself in wooded areas for prayer and meditation, and as part of the process, I end by singing for half an hour. When I do this, I do it as though it will be the last chance I’ll ever have to connect with Creator again. Like I mentioned earlier, I’m very grateful for this gift of singing I have, and the last thing I want to do is offer something crappy to Creator in return for it.
BCP: You are currently working on a memoir about being Two-Spirit. Has your song writing helped with your memoir writing, or vice versa?
RM: Yes it has helped. Songwriting has made me a better writer all the way around. I also think the memoir will be a better book because the idea is to be as candid as possible; and I first learned to be comfortable writing about my experiences and emotions, and with sharing them, through songwriting.
BCP: When do you expect your memoir to be finished?
RM: At this point, I expect to be working at it for at least another 6 months. But it’ll probably stretch longer than this. My focus in the memoir is on the incredible spiritual life I’ve had, and the interesting things along those lines keep happening to me as I go along. I guess another 12 to 18 months wouldn’t surprise me.
BCP: When do you expect to have your own collection of songs out?
RM: I can’t say for sure when I might be able to put out a collection of songs since it depends on a few things that are out of my hands; and if I did, I don’t know that it would be a full-length album. But I can say that I’ve recently started recording a new song, and that it’s going well enough that I’ll probably release it as a single in the near future, possibly within the next several weeks.
BCP: Do you identify as a Two-Spirit artist? Aboriginal artist? Artist? Or some other way?
RM: Well, I’m really all of the above, but when I write songs, I try to stick to lyrics that are ambiguous enough so that anybody could relate to them, no matter what race they belong to, and whether they’re heterosexual, gay, or Two-Spirited. I write songs with everyone in mind.
BCP: It’s Aboriginal History Month. What does that mean to you?
RM: I think it’s really the period of time in our calendar year where all related communities need to get together and really lay it down to them, and show them what we’re really all about. I feel we have an unbelievably colorful, honest, humble, and forgiving culture to offer. And I’m so grateful being a part of it all that I could cry right now.
BCP: What do you want the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities to get from hearing your music?
RM: Well, as far as I’m concerned, when I’m singing, it’s reallyCreator expressing some of its beauty through me, or at least that’s how it feels to me. Having said this, I’d like listeners to experience healing and something beautiful when they listen to me.
BCP: What advice do you have for other writers and musicians 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 music?
RM: Lift every stone and leave no leaf unturned. You have to experiment. In my own case, it was recording the hook for a song, from a genre I had never considered before, that finally got my voice on the radio. And never forget the real source of your artistic gift or talent. I have a hard time believing Creator would give anyone such gifts without wanting them to be witnessed by others. Actually, I’d go as far to say Creator makes some of us into artists because it’s a great way for It to promote Itself.
Tune in to Black Coffee Poet Friday July 1, 2011 for videos of Nicole Tanguay reading her poetry and Robbie Madsen singing one of his songs.