David Groulx was raised in the Northern Ontario mining community of Elliot Lake. He is Ojibwe Indian and French Canadian. David studied creative writing at the En’owkin Centre in Penticton, BC, in 1998–1999, where he won the Simon J. Lucas Jr. Memorial Award for poetry. He has written three previous poetry collections: Night in the Exude; The Long Dance; and Under God’s Pale Bones; A Difficult Beauty. David’s poetry has appeared in over 100 periodicals in England, Australia, Germany, Austria and the US.
BCP: Why poetry?
DG: Poetry has always appealed to me, there is less constraint, more freedom, freedom to listen to sound, instead of concentration on form, although there is that too, if you want. I remember the stories that were read to me as a young child, they were always sing-songy, you know like the Gingerbread Man, or Cat In The Hat . Rhyming, there was sound, in the beginning there was only sound, you didn’t see the words, it wouldn’t matter if you did. In the beginning was the word and the world was without form. Poetry is preliterate, prehistory I feel I can reach the universe, sound can reach across time, move around it. I want to take poetry away from the academics, where its dies and give it back to the medicine men and women where it is actually useful and beautiful.
BCP: What is your process?
DG: My process always starts with a desire of an expression, usually just before I’m about the land in the land of nod, it’s really a struggle to get out of bed and find a paper and pen, the poem begins to write itself, maybe the first two or three lines, then I begin from there. I believe there is a brief moment where the conscious and subconscious actually meet and if you miss it, well for me that poem disappears. I remember as a kid, dreaming about a poem. There was a huge hand comingout of the clouds writing on a scroll, a poem about an aboriginal man, man it was the most beautiful poem I’ve ever read, I was reading it as this hand from the clouds was writing it and a voice from behind me told me to get up and write it down, I said I would do it later as I wanted to finish reading it and I couldn’t remember a word of it by morning, maybe I’ve been looking in my mind for that poem ever since. Otherwise I begin writing at about four or five in the morning, this is my best time, it’s still quiet, the earth is still. This is where I have to work for it, rewrite, rewrite; put things aside that aren’t working and try new ones and make decisions about the delete button. Before Under God’s Pale Bones, A Difficult Beauty, A Distant Dawn Rising came out I think I threw out over a hundred pages. The muse had to be purged. Some pieces I’ll hold on to, look at them months later and then decide where to go with it.
BCP: How long have you been writing poetry?
DG: I think I wrote my first poem in grade seven? So around thirty years ago, Holy Fuck Billy! Yeah I think it was the first and only time I received an A, I was somewhat of an underachiever, and school never really interested me, as it was supposed to be, boring. I actually began writing in grade three, I think, stories, funny as hell as I recall. The teacher would get me to read them to the class, it was fun, I liked the attention. But I seemed to like the attention of the strap a lot more and there wasn’t much for the study of poetry beside Robert Service. I began reading on my own, stuff like Yeats, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, I think Coleridge was my favorite mostly because his poems were used by metal bands like Rush and Iron Maiden. I dropped out just after grade nine, as soon as I could, school is about learning, learning rules. Anyway, a short time later I had heard about this poet, Libby Scheier, I miss her she was at the school looking at students poetry and although I wasn’t a student anymore I went to see her anyway, there were a couple other kids there. We all read our shit and left so a couple of days later she called me back and told me about a couple of Native writers in Toronto, Daniel David Moses and Tompson Highway were putting together a magazine, Magazine To Re-Establish The Trickster, that’s where I published my first poem. Libby really encouraged me, I think she recognized something I couldn’t see. What a beautiful soul.
BCP: Who, or what, are your influences?
DG: I really don’t think I have any influences, there are poems I like and some I don’t. I really don’t read much poetry. I don’t have any in my library of books. If I had to mention names, I think Mahmoud Darwish and Czesław Miłosz come time mind, and someone I want to read would be the Somali poet Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame ‘Hadrawi’. I mostly read non-fiction, politics and history. One of my favorite books is Erasmus’ In Praise Of Folly, I think it’s as funny as hell. I don’t read fiction.
BCP: Your poetry is raw and challenging. What do you try to convey to your readers?
DG: I want to be a witness, a witness to the living. A witness the lives around me. That part of this country that breathes, sweats, bleeds and dies. I want to speak for the people who wear hard hats and cowboy boots not scarves and berets. Life is wild, there is no order to it, it has its own way, we don’t understand. Poetry must have meaning, purpose within this wildness of life. I remember going to the University of Victoria and the kids there were mimicking guys like Bukowski in the fashion of Purdy, I thought this is ridiculous, what could some upper-middle class kids know about that kind of life, about anything. It was just blowing sunshine up each other’s asses and I dropped out, you wanna kill poetry, take a creative writing class. Some of the best poetry in the bars and hotels (and the best fiction). Wherever life takes place, definitely not in university.
BCP: How long were you working on the poems that are featured in A Difficult Beauty? Can you explain the name of the book?
DG: A Difficult Beauty is really a selection rather than a collection, that’s part of my writing process, I don’t set out with a theme, some sort of narrative, but it comes out that way, just naturally, so nothing is forced, moving against nature is not natural. The real story about A Difficult Beauty is quite long I had a box of about five or six hundred poems and they were taken from there. The box was thrown out about ten years ago by someone who hates me ( a poet ain’t worth shit if he doesn’t have enemies.) Anyways I have this friend who I had given a copy to and she found me and sent me copies I had given her, poems I thought were lost forever. They sat with me for about a year as we became more acquainted I began editing them and that’s about it. So the name carries some of that story in it. The other part of the name, A Difficult Beauty has to do with some of the subject matter, life, sometimes it is difficult, sometimes it is beautiful.
BCP: The cover of the book is beautiful: a sun setting, trees illuminated, and snow. Giving it a second glance you notice that you’re looking through a broken window. How did you come up with that? Did you have the title in mind first, or the cover?
DG: The cover of the book was Noelle Allen’s idea publisher at Wolsak & Wynn, I liked it and we went with that. The name, A Difficult Beauty came first. The book was originally going to be called…While I Sat On The Hood Of A Chevrolet, one of the poems, the book had probably had about three or four titles, before I settled on one.
BCP: Many of your poems are tough to read. They talk of pain in the Native community. Have you gotten a backlash from the Native community?
DG: I haven’t gotten any backlash from the Aboriginal community about the book, most of what I have heard is positive in that these things need to be said, expressed. Some White people might think that this is about guilt, White guilt that they don’t feel they have to deal with. What I want to express is shame, the shame you feel about being Aboriginal in this colonial country. White people think everything is about them, this is about us, do you want to participate? Let’s talk about us, there are two realities in this country, this is mine. This book is about relationships.
BCP: Several of your poems talk of the Starlight Tours (Native men killed by the police) and the murders of Neil Stonechild and Lawrence Wegner. Why are the Starlight Tours so important to you?
DG: Yes, some of the poems speak to the Starlight Tours that took place in Saskatchewan in the mid 90’s and are still taking place, I just heard of a aboriginal guy that was dropped off in the middle of nowhere up in Kenora. The Starlight Tours story really affected me, there are two realities in this country White people refuse to understand. I remember when the story broke my father was still alive then and I was driving back from Victoria to Elliot Lake I called him on the phone to tell him I was coming home and he said to me, “Whatever you do don’t stop in Saskatchewan.” He was serious, he loved me and I loved him. The story stuck with me because I remember being picked up by the cops, I was let in the drunk tank and let out in the morning, but it’s a situation that is not unknown to many young aboriginal men in this country. I was trying to explain this to a White friend of mine recently I told him the difference between you getting picked up and me is you might get a ticket, I might get killed. This is a reality for young Native men in this country.
BCP: After you read at the International Festival of the Authors 2011 in Toronto a white woman approached you and asked if she should beware of visiting a reservation. Do you get that a lot?
DG: The White women’s question was should she be afraid of visiting a reserve she had planned to go to. The poem was called, White Girl On The Reservation At Night, the poems was more about women elders on the reservation how they hold the traditions of family and community whist in the midst of the remnants of colonial violence of the reservation. White people make everything about themselves. As an Aboriginal person I get lots of stupid comments and questions, Canadians are always teasing Americans for their ignorance about Canada when really its just that Americans could care less about Canada. I’ve got countless examples as most Aboriginal people do, the one I get the most is, “Can I touch you hair?” or “What’s you breed?” Thankfully though not everyone is so rude or ignorant.
BCP: You have worked with both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal publishers. Do you have a preference? Do you have problems getting published because of your constant challenging of colonialism?
DG: All of my publishers have been great to work with. Most of my experiences have been positive. I’ve found it is easier to publish my poems in other countries then Canada, perhaps that has to do about how little Canadians actually understand about Native literature, Native people and their experiences. “Native literature! Oh yeah Pauline Johnson” is what you get about Aboriginal literature here in Canada. Something that was written a hundred years ago which is where Canadians have relegated anything Aboriginal. I heard there are most courses on North American Aboriginal people in Europe than there are in Canada which wouldn’t surprise me. I feel more comfortable publishing in the third and fourth world, which George Manuel wrote of. I’ve never considered myself a part of the literary community, I’ve done readings and most of whatever else is presented there speaks so little to me, it almost alien to me. Listening to Canadian writers you know as an Aboriginal person, it wasn’t written for you. My writing was recently quoted as “protest poetry” What the fuck is that? I only write what I know. It becomes frustrating , exhausting to be a Indigenous person living in this country called Canada. Fighting against racism and stereotypes is taxing and tiring on the mind.
BCP: You put out 3 collections of poems in 2011. What’s next for 2012?
DG: 2012? Haven’t read my horoscope yet, Isn’t the world supposed to end on the 21st of January?
Hey what’s that is the sky? What the…….
BCP: What advice do you have for other poets out there trying to get a collection published?
DG: Any advice for younger writers?
1) Don’t drink before your reading, do it after it works much better this way.
2) Stay out of creative writing classes, they can really fuck up great poetry.
3) If you can’t borrow it, steal it.
4) Don’t get caught.
Tune into BlackCoffeePoet January 19, 2012 for a video of David Groulx reading his poems.